By Paul Kelly / IndyCar.com
LONG BEACH, Calif. — Kyle Kirkwood sealed the deal.
Kirkwood earned his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES victory Sunday by winning the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach from the pole in the No. 27 AutoNation Honda. The win came in Kirkwood’s 20th career start and third with Andretti Autosport, which he joined after driving for AJ Foyt Racing as a rookie in 2022.
“This is amazing, man,” Kirkwood said. “What a day. The calmest day I’ve had in two years, and it was a win.
“I was so happy with just the pole yesterday, but I’m over the moon right now. This is incredible for the whole team. We had a stellar day for the whole team with Andretti Autosport.”
Andretti Autosport teammate Romain Grosjean finished second in the No. 28 DHL Honda, .9907 of a second behind Kirkwood. It was the first 1-2 finish for Andretti Autosport since Colton Herta, Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay swept all three podium spots at the second race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in September 2020.
2022 Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge winner Marcus Ericsson rounded out the podium finishers in the No. 8 Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing Honda and took the championship lead by 15 points over Pato O’Ward, who finished 17th in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet.
Southern California native Herta finished fourth at his home race in the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda to help Andretti Autosport take first, second and fourth as its resurgence continues early this season. 2021 series champion Alex Palou placed fifth in the No. 10 Ridgeline Lubricants Honda, as he and Ericsson drove Chip Ganassi Racing to two of the top five spots.
Florida native Kirkwood entered the series last season in the tire tracks of becoming the first driver to sweep titles in USF2000, USF Pro 2000 and INDY NXT by Firestone in successive seasons. But he had an incident-filled rookie season with the Foyt team and ended up 24th in the championship, the second-lowest full-time driver in the standings.
The first two races of this season also were rocky for Kirkwood, 24. He finished 15th in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding and was eliminated by a mechanical problem from the PPG 375 at Texas Motor Speedway in 27th place.
But Kirkwood put everything together this weekend on the sun-splashed streets of the 11-turn, 1.968-mile temporary circuit, finally fulfilling the huge promise he showed throughout the junior categories. The win helped him jump from 20th to fifth in the championship standings.
“I just had a moment of relaxation (after crossing the finish line), to be honest,” Kirkwood said. “I felt like I needed this win, and we got it today. A moment of relief, no doubt.”
Said team owner Michael Andretti: “He’s the real deal. We knew it a long time ago when he won the championship for us in the INDY NXT series. We knew he was something special.”
Kirkwood led 53 of 85 laps and took the lead for good on Lap 56.
Reigning event winner Josef Newgarden had pitted from the lead under green in the No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet on Lap 52, with Grosjean entering the pits for the final time from second on Lap 53. Kirkwood followed suit on Lap 54 and was able to exit the pits comfortably on front of Newgarden and Grosjean.
When Palou made his final stop on Lap 55, Kirkwood cycled back to the lead. Grosjean kept his teammate honest over the closing 30 laps, lingering within about a second for most of the time. But Grosjean had to conserve fuel due to stopping a lap earlier than Kirkwood and couldn’t use his available, but fuel-gulping, push-to-pass until the final lap. By then, it was too late.
“It’s awesome for Kyle; I’m happy for him,” Grosjean said. “I wish I was in his position right now, but he drove a hell of a race, like a champ, the whole weekend. He deserved that. We tried everything we could on our end, but it was a fuel situation, so we couldn’t really attack.”
Still, like Kirkwood, the podium finish was a needed shot of redemption for Grosjean. He finished 18th and 14th in the first two races, eliminated in accidents in both.
Newgarden led 27 laps after starting eighth but also had to conserve fuel down the stretch and faded to ninth place at the finish.
Kirkwood will split $10,000 with Andretti Autosport and his chosen charity, AutoNation DRVPNK, for his victory as part of the PeopleReady Force For Good Challenge.
The next event of the 2023 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season is the Children’s of Alabama Indy Grand Prix on Sunday, April 30 at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama.