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FIRESTONE GRAND PRIX OF ST. PETERSBURGDowntown St. Petersburg Noon, NBC (Race starts at 12:20)Defending champ: Scott McLaughlin

ST. PETERSBURG — In the early morning hours before qualifying for the 2023 season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Kyle Kirkwood — cup of coffee in hand — was strolling through the paddock trackside. A slight smile on his face, the Jupiter native was walking among the fans relatively unnoticed.

This won’t be the case for long.

The second-year NTT IndyCar Series driver has a new team — Andretti Autosport — and a renewed expectation. And if the former Indy Lights champion’s anticipated success surprises anyone, that would only be early in the season, which gets underway Sunday (noon ET, NBC) in St. Pete.

A preseason list on social media of “Who Ya Got” to win the 2023 championship included nine drivers. Kirkwood wasn’t even a choice, something he noted with a slight grin. That may actually allay some pressure for the 24-year-old from the outside.  Rest assured, internal motivation has never been a problem.

Both Kirkwood’s teammates and his competitors already are quick to put him high atop the list of not only race favorites but championship possibilities. He’s won a title in every series he’s competed in on the way up into the American open-wheel big time.  He was top five in both opening practices on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn downtown St. Petersburg waterfront street course.

Then, for the first time in his career, Kirkwood advanced to the final round of qualifying Saturday — the Fast Six. His No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda hit the wall exiting the final turn on his first qualifying lap of the session, however. He will still start sixth — his best-ever starting position for an NTT IndyCar Series race.

This kind of positive start to his next chapter of competition is purposeful and rewarding. And telling.

“It’s definitely important because I think at least from the outside looking in, it’s not as important for me or the team but I guess for the persona around the team and myself based on my last year of performance being so up and down; to start out the year on a high and continue that trait,” Kirkwood said after Friday’s session. “And I think the expectation will continue to be that from the outside.

“It’s a good feeling to be here again, it’s not like it’s taken me time to adapt to them [Andretti Autosport] and how they operate. I feel like we rolled out good right away.”

Kirkwood also drove for team owner Michael Andretti throughout the junior series — the only driver in history to capture a championship trophy in every single junior open-wheel series that he competed in — including both the USF Pro 2000 series in 2020 and then the “triple-A” Indy Lights Series (now called Indy NXT) in 2021.

Kirkwood ran his 2022 rookie IndyCar season with another legend’s team last year, A.J. Foyt Racing. Even with the smaller two-car Foyt team — compared with Andretti’s four-car operation — Kirkwood still earned a top-10 qualifying showing (Mid-Ohio), a top-10 finish (at Long Beach) and led laps (at Texas Motor Speedway) in his maiden season.

“I kept an open mind with everything,” Kirkwood says of his tenure at Foyt, adding, “What it came down to was I knew I could get a year under my belt at Foyt, hope to make something good with the team and progress forward with them. I didn’t have any plans to move elsewhere.

“Once the year moved on and we didn’t really progress, I got the offer from Andretti and I couldn’t say no to that.”

Kirkwood is grateful to Foyt and his son, Larry Foyt, who leads the team, for his opportunity last year. But he is also mindful of the chance Andretti’s team represents for him. And, equally as important, is the sense of “home” it provides.

“They’re giving me one of their most sought-after seats in the 27-car field, which is a big deal to me,” Kirkwood added. “So, I’m super grateful for what they’re doing for me.

“As a South Florida kid who grew up going to a karting track when I was young just as a hobby — it feels cool to also start off our year competing in this race in St. Petersburg in 2023.”

His teammates at Andretti — Colton Herta, former Formula One driver Romain Grosjean and Devlin DeFrancesco —are as optimistic about the team’s potential as he is. And there is an unmistakable sense of “bonding” there even as the season takes its very first green flag.

“I’ve known Kyle for a while,’’ said the 22-year-old Herta, who won the St. Petersburg Grand Prix in 2021. “We used to race go-karts against each other when we were 10, 11, 12 years old and I think he’s a lot like me, very mellow, doesn’t get too down on himself but also doesn’t get too excited — which I think is good for a racing driver.

“As far as how good he is in racing, I think his track record speaks to that. When you win everything on the way up, Formula 2000, Indy Pro, Indy Lights and then get in an IndyCar and are rapid in it right away, that shows how good he is.”

One after another, during a full field interview session, the other drivers on the grid spoke similarly of Kirkwood.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see Kyle be the fastest of all four [Andretti cars] this year,” 2008 St. Petersburg winner Graham Rahal said. “Kyle is an exceptional talent and did a great job in the Foyt stuff. It would not surprise me at all.”

As a kid, Kirkwood played competitive travel soccer — his father is a former professional soccer player — and raced go-karts. But there came a time — specifically during a weekend match vs. race timing conflict when his father, Cam, knew his youngest son had to make a choice.

By all accounts, it was the right one. But it wasn’t easy.

Kirkwood, who as a young boy had his fast laps rewarded with ice cream cones, essentially had to win championships along the way in junior series to pay for the “next” season of competition. He won prestigious scholarships from IndyCar star turned NASCAR regular A.J. Allmendinger for his work in go-karts and eventually as a teenager from Team USA, which has launched the career of many IndyCar stars.

“Kyle’s always had this inner security and humility and I think he knows that’s very important,” his mom, Peggy, said. “This is his passion and he’s lived and breathed this sport since he was 3 years old. There were times it wasn’t going to happen and something came through. Many moments in Kyle’s career where it was not going to go forward and God provided. One door closed and another opened.”

And, she added: “You can see the passion in Kyle. When he’s here at the track, this is his element. He’s happiest at the track.”

Kirkwood heads into his 2023 season as optimistic as he’s ever been — ready to turn in the ultimate combination of drive, talent and resource.

“Do I think he’s going to win races this year?” Kirkwood’s former mentor Allmendinger said with a huge smile. “Ohhhh, I think he’s going to win races this year. Yes, he is.”