IndyCar rising star seeking to end a 12-year championship drought

The last 11 IndyCar championships have been won by Team Penske or Chip Ganassi Racing. Can Kyle Kirkwood change that for Andretti Global?
Kyle Kirkwood, Andretti Global, IndyCar
Kyle Kirkwood, Andretti Global, IndyCar / Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Kirkwood dominated at every level of open-wheel racing before joining the NTT IndyCar Series as a rookie with A.J. Foyt Enterprises in 2022. He won 12 of 14 races en route to the 2018 U.S. F2000 Championship, nine of 16 races en route to the 2019 Indy Pro 2000 Championship, and 10 of 20 races en route to the 2021 Indy Light championship.

When he reached the sport's top level in 2022, there was obviously a bit of a learning curve for the Floridian, who finished just 11 of 18 races and scored only a single 10th place finish.

"It's massively more difficult, I think," Kirkwood told Beyond the Flag. "Road to Indy, there are few drivers who are really good, and out of those few drivers, each year one or potentially two make it to IndyCar, whereas IndyCar is literally just the bulk of all those drivers every single year.

"For me, I was just kind of in my own my own class, if you will, and then once you graduate out of that, everyone's in this pool of drivers and IndyCar is just a dominant, extremely tough field in general, and I think any driver with the right equipment on a certain weekend can go win a race."

The depth of IndyCar is what stands out, above all else.

"It’s not like there are just a handful of drivers up front," he said. "It’s really the entire field, it's just based on where you're at, it feels like you're going for a win because it's just that much talent level all the way through the entire field."

While the learning curve was evident, Kirkwood was fast from day one after he made the move to Andretti Global, the team with which he won the 2021 Indy Lights championship. He accounted for both of the team's victories in 2023, winning on the streets of Long Beach, California and Nashville, Tennessee.

He is seeking to capitalize on that momentum in 2024, but also knows that there is somewhat of a reset after a six-month offseason.

"A little bit of both," Kirkwood said. "You kind of have to take a reset in the offseason and focus on what those goals are Obviously every season you come into, you want to win races, and starting off with St. Pete, it's a street course, and we know we've been dominant on street courses in the past few years, Andretti has been.

"So yes and no, you kind of have to look at it as a reset, understand that anything can kind of happen, but at the same time, we know that we were quick on street courses, so with those two wins comes some confidence of how we're going to be this season on street courses."

Taking advantage of the fact that the 2024 season begins at what should be a track that suits Kirkwood's -- and the team's -- strengths is key, as he understands the value of a fast start in a field that consists of as much talent as IndyCar's does, even though it is a long 17-race season.

"It's important every year, but I feel like over the past couple years it's been so close and any points matter," he continued. "I think for me it was only four points between where I finished in 11th in the championship versus being in the top 10, so Colton [Herta] and I were pretty much tied up.

"Anything you can do to minimize any risks and capitalize on any opportunities, everything matters from the first lap of the first race of the season."

With Kirkwood's multi-win season last year, the 2023 season became the third consecutive season in which a first-time winner won multiple races. In 2021, Alex Palou won three races for Chip Ganasi Racing and won the championship, and in 2022, Scott McLaughlin won three races for Team Penske.

Given that both of those drivers are considered among the top three favorites for this year's championship, with Palou being a two-time and reigning champion, that's quite the group for Kirkwood to be a part of.

What he needs to do to truly establish himself in that group is add consistency. Inconsistency has plagued Michael Andretti's team as a whole for several years and is one of the main reasons why they have been unable to end the ongoing 11-year run of Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing championships.

Kirkwood won twice last year, but those wins were his only top five finishes, ultimately leading to a finish just outside of the top 10 in the standings.

"That's an obvious goal of ours," Kirkwood said of the need for consistency. "Of course, we're pushing to make that happen; it's not like this was the only year that we're pushing to make that happen."

He does feel like both he and the team have taken the necessary steps to improve in that area. The 2024 season marks the first season since 2012 in which Andretti Global have run just three full-time entries. In all 11 seasons since Ryan Hunter-Reay won the organization their most recent title, they have fielded at least four.

For 2024, the resources are being allocated exactly where they need to be.

"We feel like we've got a handle on things though, and there were some curveballs thrown at us last year that were kind of unexpected, so we've made adjustments for that at least, but who knows? Curve balls come at you, and you don't know that they're coming, so we expect, at least compared to last year, to have situations handled a lot more proactively than previous years."

That said, he knows that the start of the 2024 season always tends to be an optimistic period for most teams on the grid; now it's all about execution.

"But I'm sure every team can say that, and for us it's just acknowledging where we're at and how to capitalize on opportunities. Meeting expectations is our primary focus.

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The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is scheduled to get the 2024 IndyCar season this Sunday, March 10. NBC is set to provide live coverage from the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida beginning at 12:00 p.m. ET. If you have not yet begun a free trial of FuboTV, do so today and don't miss it!