An Interesting Storyline for This Season

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As we head into the 2023 season for the NTT IndyCar Series, I find myself intrigued with a storyline that has not gotten a whole lot of play – and it sort of baffles me. It involves driver Kyle Kirkwood, as he moves from AJ Foyt Enterprises to take over the No. 27 at Andretti Autosport that was vacated by Alexander Rossi.

Many are enthralled at how Rossi might do at his new place of employment – Arrow McLaren – but no one is paying much attention to the car he just stepped out of.

Not much was expected from Kyle Kirkwood in 2022. He was the reigning Indy Lights champion, who also won the championship in Indy Pro 2000 and US F2000 as he climbed up the Road to Indy ladder in previous years. Still, no one expects even an Indy Lights champion to come in and win races in the NTT IndyCar Series; especially when he is with one of smaller teams on the grid. That first season is meant to be a learning experience. The team owner hopes that any damage resulting from any rookie mistakes will end up being an investment in the drivers future, and that owner might reap the benefits.

It sounds good in theory, but it rarely works out that way. Dale Coyne brought Alex Polou to IndyCar as a rookie. In Palou’s second year, he jumped ship in the offseason and moved to Chip Ganassi Racing and won the championship. Things got a little messy in Year Three, but we won’t get into that right now.

When Kirkwood signed with Foyt prior to 2022, everyone knew it was a one-year deal – no matter how things went. He won the 2021 Indy Lights championship with Andretti Autosport. There was no room for Kirkwood at Andretti for 2022, but it was a foregone conclusion that there would be room for him in 2023. Whether it was termed this way between all the parties involved; Kirkwood was essentially on loan to Foyt from Andretti for 2022, with the understanding he would be coming back to Andretti’s IndyCar team in 2023.

Whether the opening would be created by Rossi leaving the team, Devlin DeFrancesco getting dropped by the team or Colton Herta moving on to Formula One – it was pretty certain that there would be at least one opening at Andretti for 2023. The only driver that didn’t seem to be going anywhere was Romain Grosjean.

I thought the pairing of Kirkwood and Foyt would be a good one. Although he was a 23 year-old rookie, Kirkwood seemed wise beyond his years. He had a serious maturity in his nature, and he seemed to have a good grasp of what was expected of him.

In his first practice at St. Petersburg, Kirkwood was very impressive. He surprised everyone by making it into Round Two of Qualifying in his very first race. He started twelfth, ahead of such drivers as Pato O’Ward, Helio Castroneves and Alexander Rossi. Unfortunately, Kirkwood finished eighteenth but was on the lead lap at the end of the race.

For the most part, Kirkwood impressed in his IndyCar debut. In the next race at Texas, he qualified a disappointing twenty-third; but was moving up steadily until Lap 113, when it all went terribly wrong.

Fellow rookie Devlin DeFrancesco was all over the place that day. He later took himself out, along with Castroneves and Graham Rahal on Lap 128. But on Lap 113, DeFrancesco cut across the front of Kirkwood and took the air away from his front wings. Kirkwood’s car began to drift sideways, before hitting the outside wall very hard. There was a lot of damage to the No. 14. Kirkwood was physically fine, but that crash seemed to shake his confidence.

In all fairness, Kirkwood did bounce back immediately after that, with his only Top-Ten of the season – a tenth at Long Beach. But a botched pit stop ruined his day at Barber. I happened to be standing behind his pit at the time and caught the extra-long pit stop on video.

It all went downhill from there. From Barber to the end of the season – a span of fourteen races in a seventeen race season – Kirkwood only had four finishes higher than twentieth, the highest being a thirteenth at Portland. Kirkwood had seven DNFs and finished twenty-fourth in the season standings, among twenty-five fulltime drivers. The only driver finishing lower than Kirkwood was his teammate, Dalton Kellett.

However you slice it, it was not a good rookie season for Kyle Kirkwood. Of course, the main question lingers – was it his fault or the team’s? There is no question that the Foyt cars were completely out to lunch at several tracks last year. Will Power nor Scott Dixon could have done nothing with the Foyt cars on certain weekends. From the way I saw it, the Texas cash was not Kirkwood’s fault, but later in the season – Kirkwood made a lot of unforced errors.

As the carnage began to mount up, the results got worse. Although both parties knew it was a short-term arrangement, I think both sides were ready to part ways by the time the season was over.

So now, Kirkwood heads back to Andretti Autosport to fill the cockpit of the No. 27 car. There he will have much more experienced teammates than Dalton Kellett and Tatiana Calderón. Grosjean and Colton Herta bring a lot of knowledge and experience from different angles. Devlin DeFrancesco? Well, he’s probably better than Kellett.

Will Kirkwood revert to his winning ways in every support series he has run in? Or did his time with Foyt bring out a side in Kirkwood we never knew existed? Time will tell, but I’m willing to bet that Kirkwood is much improved in 2023. Rumor has it that the Foyt team will also be much improved this season. Hopefully, they will both see success and each can be happy for the other. We’ll see.

George Phillips

5 Responses to “An Interesting Storyline for This Season”

  1. Davis Brewer Says:

    The Foyt team improving this year.
    This is Marco’s year is much like hearing the check is in the mail for Indycar fans. I do wish Kyle Kirkwood success in the series but will make my call on Kirkwood after the field is set for the Indianapolis 500. For anyone that wagers on Indycar like me, Kyle should bring some decent odds even in a top five wager the first few races unless Kyle strikes his first win.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    Even with the modest expectations last year, Kirkwood disappointed, though it is fair to point out that the Foyt team in funding crisis did him absolutely no favors. I expect Kirkwood knows that too.

    I would be surprised if Kirkwood regularly contends for podiums this year, but I would also be surprised if he doesn’t have at least 3-4 races where he really shines. Beating DeFrancesco in the points by a solid margin is a good goal for him this year.

  3. Kyle Kirkwood’s first event against IndyCar competitors came in this event:

    Click to access iRacingWeek1BoxScore.pdf

    He did “drive” an Andretti Autosport machine in it as well, and he did fare pretty well against his teammates. Looks like he will be fun to watch in the real cars as well.

  4. Thanks for all of this off-season blogging!

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