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Kyle Kirkwood used a tire advantage to maximum effect to claim the first NTT IndyCar Series pole position of his career at Long Beach on Saturday.

Kirkwood’s 1m06.2878s in the No.27 Andretti Autosport Honda was just enough to see off a late challenge from Ganassi’s Marcus Ericsson — the Swede ultimately came up just 0.03s short — but the tone for the final battle for pole was actually set in the previous session, when Ericsson’s teammate Marcus Armstrong hit the wall in the final two minutes.

That set up a late scramble: under IndyCar’s qualifying rules, the remaining cars in the group were given 30s after the green flag to take the opportunity for a single final flyer. That, in turn, created an additional complication. Use the final set of stickered alternates to secure a spot in the Fast 6, or try to get into the Fast 6 with the tires that are already on the car and use the last set to try for pole?

Kirkwood went for Option B. Everyone else went for Option A. And by the time the Fast 6 was over, several of them were wishing they hadn’t.

“I’m ecstatic,” said Kirkwood immediately after climbing from the car. “Our car is on fire this weekend. We’re constantly chipping away at it, getting it better and better. Third weekend with the team and I’ve already got a pole. I couldn’t be happier.

“I knew this day would come. I didn’t know if it was going to come this early; there are a lot of tough guys out here. It’s kind of solidifying myself; it’s kind of, ‘He can do this.’ Starting from the pole, a lot of people win from the pole… It’s a good moment, no doubt.”

Ericsson, while just short of the ultimate prize, was still pleased to have earned a front row start for Sunday’s race, while Kirkwood’s teammate Romain Grosjean, who will line up third, was one of several who coulda, woulda, shoulda.

“I had it,” he said. “I messed up at the hairpin and I think I lost about three tenths. It’s my fault — I braked too late, got the rear locking and had to pull the clutch in the middle of the corner to try to keep it going. We didn’t have an easy session; we got really blocked in Q2 then we got the red flag and had to use the new tires to get into the Fast Six. I knew Kyle was going to be good, he’s been driving well all weekend. Really happy for him and all the Andretti team. I think I had it, I just didn’t put it together.”