Looking Beyond the Box Score

I’ve made it no secret this season that I have become a big fan of Kyle Kirkwood. Part of that is because he drives for such an underdog team, but part of it is also because I’ve grown to like him in interviews and the way he drives a race car.

While I have been quick to make the easy joke about AJ Foyt’s team now and then, deep down I always want to see them do well. After all, AJ Foyt was, and still is, my all-time favorite driver; so it would make sense that I want his team to succeed. But they have become a punch-line over the years/decades; so whenever they get any glimmer of light – I’ll take it.

Kirkwood won the 2021 Indy Lights championship, where he won ten of twenty races. A 50% winning percentage isn’t too shabby, I don’t care who your competition is. He also won the 2019 Indy Pro 2000 championship, when he won nine of sixteen races – including seven in a row at one stretch. In 2018, Kirkwood won the US F2000 championship by winning twelve of fourteen races (second in another). Kirkwood had been chosen to run the 2020 Indy Lights schedule for Andretti Autosport, before that season got cancelled due to COVID.

In three seasons of lower formula open-wheel racing, Kirkwood won thirty-one of fifty races. Michael Andretti said it was his intention to hold on to Kirkwood, but he had no room on his team for 2022, so he signed a one-year deal with Foyt.

When you’ve won as many races as Kirkwood did from 2018-21, you know he was realistic about how this season would go; but I’m sure there was one side of him that thought he could bring the magic bullet to Foyt that would put them in victory lane for the first time since 2013. It hasn’t happened.

At some of the races, the car was just no good. That happens sometimes with the Foyt team. At other races the car was decent, but race strategies or flat-out bad luck worked against them. But a few times, Kirkwood had been given a good car for the weekend – but his rookie exuberance went into overdrive and he threw some good finishes away. That is what happened in Nashville this past weekend.

Publicly, the pundits are still singing Kirkwood’s praises. This past weekend, however, I was in on a couple of conversations that were not as complimentary of the twenty-three year old rookie from Jupiter, Florida. One person I was talking to over lunch said Kirkwood could tear up an anvil. Another person on pit lane during the race, said Kirkwood was a f***ing idiot.

Maybe I’m just blinded by my allegiance to Kirkwood, but I am still very impressed with what he has done this season. When you look at the box score of the season, it isn’t pretty. Kirkwood has one Top-Ten finish (tenth at Long Beach), but he has a dubious 50% season going – he has had a DNF in half of the races run so far this season. That’s seven in fourteen races. When he isn’t slapping the wall during the race, he is finishing in the back of the pack.

Kirkwood’s average finish this season is 20.86. That’s good enough to rank him twenty-fourth in points; two spots behind Jimmie Johnson and even further behind two drivers that missed one start each – Callum Ilott and Jack Harvey. But as any apologist will tell you, sometimes you have to look beyond the box score.

We all know that Kirkwood is slated to go to Andretti in 2023, to drive the No. 27 car that will soon be vacated by Alexander Rossi. I’ve heard and read where some wonder if Michael Andretti is second-guessing himself, after Kirkwood has been so hard on his equipment. I think just the opposite. I think he loves what he is seeing.

Next year, Andretti will get a driver who tore up a lot of cars in a tough rookie season, where that driver also learned a lot of valuable lessons. The best part for Andretti is that this tough rookie season hasn’t cost him a dime in car repair bills. Kirkwood is learning on Foyt’s tab, then will move to Andretti for his sophomore season where he will apply that newfound knowledge.

Kirkwood reminds me of Paul Tracy, when he was coming up in the early 90s. If you were following the series then, you know that Tracy had a lot of spectacular crashes and tore up a lot of cars for Roger Penske. In Tracy’s very first outing for The Captain, Tracy pounded the wall at Michigan on Lap Three in 1991. The result was a torn up race car for Penske and a broken leg for Tracy. But when he was recovered, Penske threw him back to the deep-end. This time, he was able to swim and the result was a seventh-place finish at Nazareth. I’d like to say it was smooth sailing for Tracy from that point on, but it wasn’t. There was a lot more carnage and a lot of angered fellow drivers before Tracy finally scored his first win at Long Beach in 1993. Even after that first win, Tracy either won spectacularly or won spectacularly.

Am I saying that Kyle Kirkwood is another Paul Tracy? Absolutely not, but you can draw some parallels in some of the moves Kirkwood has attempted this season to some of those that Tracy tied in his first couple of seasons. Of course, Kirkwood has not been handed Penske-level equipment.

It all boils down to one school of thought in motorsports. If I was a car-owner, I would much rather have a driver in my car that I had to hold back and slow down occasionally; than one that I had to constantly motivate and get their attention to run faster. Kirkwood does not seem to be lacking motivation. He just needs to figure out when to pounce and when to sit back and wait for the race to come to him.

I think a year with Foyt will actually help Kirkwood. Many race weekends, he has exceeded expectations with how fast he can make that Foyt car go. Of course, it doesn’t always transfer to qualifying or to the race – but Kirkwood has opened eyes the way he has extracted speed out of that Foyt car. If he can make a Foyt car run a legitimate fifth for a great part of the race, as he did in Nashville – just imagine what he’ll be able to do in Rossi’s car.

So if you’ve fallen into the trap of looking at the box score on Kyle Kirkwood’s rookie season; look beyond it. I think Kyle Kirkwood is going to be just fine going forward.

George Phillips

Please Note: It has been a busy last few weeks – on the race track and at home, and I am planning on attending Gateway next weekend. Since the NTT IndyCar Series is off this weekend, I will take off a little time too. Susan is to be discharged from the hospital later today (She was discharged Friday Aug 12), to a physical therapy rehab facility; and I need to be attentive to her for a few days. She is hoping she can go to Gateway, so I am going to do whatever I can to help her achieve that goal. So I will have no post here on Friday Aug 12 or Monday Aug 15. I will return here on Wednesday Aug 17. I hope everyone enjoys the off-weekend, but please check back next week. – GP

4 Responses to “Looking Beyond the Box Score”

  1. Kirkwood and Malukas seemed to be good friends last year in Lights. Wonder what was said in the paddock after Nashville.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    Despite his regular flashes of raw speed, I do think it is fair to say that Kirkwood has been disappointing so far this year. That said, expectations probably ran a bit too high for him going into the season (thinking he could, perhaps, sneak into the ROY comeptition) given that he is driving a car that even Sebastien Bourdais couldn’t drag into the top 15 in points last year.

    While Kirkwood’s racecraft and results this season have left a good bit to be desired, I expect racing the Foyt car has been an especially challenging adjustment for him. He’s run up front his entire racing career and he’s pretty much always been able to push his car just a bit further, brake a bit later, than the few drivers he’s ever found himself behind. That’s simply not possible at Foyt. A more mature driver would understand that. Kirkwood is a long way from that kind of maturity, but I think he’ll get there eventually. What he is not a long way from, I expect, is taking a good car and driving it faster than most of the field.

  3. I’m praying for Susan and thanking you for blogging.

  4. James T Suel Says:

    I think Kirkwood is just the kind of driver that you want in your car. I just hope he gets a fair chance at Andretti. Iam afraid he may get the same treatment that Sage got on Chips team. Drivers now days don’t get much of a chance to develop

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