IndyCar rising star quietly displaying Alex Palou-like consistency

Kyle Kirkwood hasn't yet won an IndyCar race in the 2024 season, but his consistency has been second to none as he attempts to mount a championship challenge.
Kyle Kirkwood, Andretti Global, Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing, IndyCar
Kyle Kirkwood, Andretti Global, Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing, IndyCar / Andrew Nelles / The Tennessean / USA

Five of the six most recent IndyCar championships have been won by the driver who posted the best worst finish throughout the course of the season, and each and every one of the four champions during that stretch won a title after having posted the best worst finish at least once during that stretch.

Those four champions are the only four active former champions in the series.

Last year, Chip Ganassi Racing's Alex Palou finished no lower than eighth place and won his second career championship, making him the first driver in more than a century to run a season with at least 17 races and finish every single race inside the top eight.

But in Sunday afternoon's Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix on the streets of Detroit, Michigan, the driver of the No. 10 Honda was one of a number of drivers who had tire issues, strategy issues, and/or issues with contact from other drivers, and he could only salvage a 16th place finish.

He was slated for a top five finish, even with so much having not gone his way early on, before he was unable to avoid a spinning Josef Newgarden and his No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet on a late restart.

Palou entered the race as the reigning winner and qualified on the front row, but he ended up with his worst finish since he was taken out of the race at Road America in June 2022.

It was also his first non-top eight finish since September 2022, when he finished in 12th place at Portland International Raceway. It ended a 21-month, 23-race streak of top eight finishes, an incomprehensible feat in the modern era of the world's most competitive racing series.

Even after a bad race, Palou finds himself in second place in the championship standings, and he is still one of four drivers to score double digit points in each of the 2024 season's first six races (excluding Indy 500 qualifying from the Indy 500 point total). But he is no longer the driver with the best worst finish.

That title now belongs to Andretti Global's Kyle Kirkwood.

Kirkwood, who earned the first two wins of his career last year, led laps in Detroit and finished in a season-high fourth place, shooting him up from 10th to sixth in the championship standings. He has finished no lower than 11th this year, a stark contrast to last year at this time. Through six races last season, he had just a single top 11 finish -- a win in Long Beach.

While the 25-year-old Jupiter, Florida native hasn't yet had that true breakthrough moment in 2024, his consistency has kept him in the hunt for the championship, and he finds himself as the top Andretti Global driver.

The difference between Palou last year and Kirkwood this year is that Kirkwood isn't yet at the sharp end of the championship standings, sitting 68 points out of the lead. Palou, on the other hand, took the points lead last year with his first victory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, and he never looked back.

He also became the first five-win champion since 2016, so it wasn't just his consistency that propelled him to the top.

But get this: had the victories for the champions in each of the three most recent seasons all been runner-up finishes, the champion would have been the same every season. Palou still would have won in 2021, Will Power still would have won in 2022, and Palou still would have won in 2023.

However, if Kirkwood is to mount a true championship challenge, it is likely going to take some victories throughout the season's final 11 races.

All four active series champions have won at least two titles, and three of them occupy the top three spots in the championship standings. If not for Newgarden's disqualification in St. Petersburg, those four champions would occupy the top four spots in the standings.

Arrow McLaren teammates Pato O'Ward and Alexander Rossi lead the non-champions in fourth and fifth place, respectively.

So Kirkwood still has his work cut out for him if he wants to break through that "championship barrier", per se, one which features 12 titles, including the seven most recent and 10 of the last 11.

But if he gets hot and wins a couple races like he did last year, he remains well within striking distance, thanks to the fact that his "bad" days have improved drastically from where he was at this point last year.

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Road America is scheduled to host the next race on the 2024 IndyCar schedule. Palou won last year's race, the second of three in a row en route to his second championship, while Kirkwood finished in a solid ninth place. The XPEL Grand Prix at Road America is set to be broadcast live on NBC beginning at 3:30 p.m. ET on Sunday, June 9. Start a free trial of FuboTV now and don't miss it!