The efficient Indy 500 rookie quietly flying under the radar

Kyffin Simpson has been one of the biggest movers in each of his first four IndyCar races, and he earned a career-best qualifying effort for the Indy 500.
Kyffin Simpson, Chip Ganassi Racing, IndyCar, Indy 500
Kyffin Simpson, Chip Ganassi Racing, IndyCar, Indy 500 / Grace Hollars/IndyStar / USA TODAY

Chip Ganassi Racing adding a fifth car for Kyffin Simpson to their lineup for the 2024 IndyCar season was a decision that raised many eyebrows.

There was skepticism over the 19-year-old Caymanian driver's ability to adapt to the top level of American open-wheel racing after two seasons in Indy Lights/Indy NXT. There was a wide-ranging belief that he had not yet had enough time to develop.

The driver of the No. 4 Honda has indeed been thrown into the deep end this year, and in a series that has seen more than 27 cars just once (28 in Long Beach) through the season's first four races, Simpson has posted an average starting position of just 24.25.

But in the races themselves, the rookie has been impressive -- not particularly flashy, but impressive, nonetheless.

Simpson is still pursuing his first career top 10 finish, and he sits in a modest 18th place in the championship standings. But he has finished significantly better than he has started in every single race thus far.

He drove from 23rd place to 12th (14th before the Team Penske disqualifications) on the streets of St. Petersburg, 26th to 19th on the streets of Long Beach, 23rd to 14th at Barber Motorsports Park, and 25th to 15th at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

That's 37 positions over four races, and on paper, he has actually finished ahead of Team Penske's Josef Newgarden, the reigning Indy 500 winner, three times out of four.

With qualifying seemingly one of the youngster's weaknesses, he was viewed by some as one of the drivers most at risk of being bumped from the field for the 108th running of the Indy 500 entirely.

He ended up qualifying closer to the front row than he did being bumped, qualifying on the outside of the sixth row in 18th place -- three places higher than his six-time series champion teammate Scott Dixon. He outqualified more drivers (16) in Indy 500 qualifying than he had outqualified throughout the entire season up to that point (12).

Simpson spoke to Beyond the Flag about the reason behind his qualifying form up to this point in the season and why he felt he was able to perform so much better during his four-lap qualifying run at the four-turn, 2.5-mile (4.023-kilometer) Speedway, Indiana oval, even though those four laps are widely considered the most stressful four laps of any rookie's career.

"I think the whole year qualifying has definitely been a struggle, and being able to maximize the reds has been a big struggle for me," Simpson admitted.

But at the Indianapolis oval, there is no tire qualifying strategy when it comes to reds vs. primaries, and Simpson was able to capitalize on that with a career-best qualifying effort as he aims to do in his first career oval start exactly what he has done in all four of his IndyCar starts thus far: move forward, picking off one car at a time.

"Here, you've got lots of practice time on Friday to just do qualifying runs," he continued. "So we were able to get a lot of qualifying runs done, and that made me a lot more confident in what I had and what I needed to do for my qualifying run when it was actually time to put it together. And I think all of that just played out really well for us to be able to maximize what we had."

With so much extra time to practice in traffic for the 200-lap race itself as well, perhaps Simpson is a driver to keep an eye on starting mid-pack.

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The 108th running of the Indy 500 is set to be broadcast live on NBC from Indianapolis Motor Speedway beginning at 11:00 a.m. ET on Sunday, May 26. The green flag is scheduled for shortly after 12:30 p.m. ET, weather permitting. Start a free trial of FuboTV now and don't miss any of the action!