LONG BEACH, Calif. — As Kyle Kirkwood crossed the finish line for his first career IndyCar win, his new race strategist urged him to soak up the sights and sounds of victory.
It nearly brought the 24-year-old to tears.
“A first win, it’s a big deal for any driver. I guarantee even Mario Andretti, all the wins he’s had, he still remembers the first one,” said Bryan Herta, who was moved to Kirkwood’s strategist one race ago.
“This is just as important milestone because it’s one thing to be a guy who people think can win in IndyCar. It’s something else to be somebody who has won in IndyCar.”
Kirkwood held off teammate Romain Grosjean on the downtown streets of Long Beach to give Andretti Autosport a 1-2 finish Sunday at the most prestigious street course race in the United States. Coincidentally, team owner Michael Andretti scored his first career win at Long Beach in 1986 and Mario Andretti won three IndyCar races at Long Beach and in 1977 became the only American driver to win a Formula One race on American soil when the grand prix was an F1 event.
“This is such a special race, I grew up watching it, and to win here is such a dream come true. The next best race to win, outside of this one, is Indianapolis,” Kirkwood said. “And the feeling I got, it was like trying to hold tears back in the car, which is something I never really felt before.”
The Jupiter, Florida, native on Saturday won the first pole of his career and then parlayed it into his first career victory in a breakthrough for Andretti Autosport. The team showed at last month’s season-opener that it had clearly made massive offseason strides, but all four Andretti drivers were crashed out of the race.
Then at Texas two weeks ago, three of the four Andretti drivers crashed with Kirkwood’s car damaged in a pit lane incident with Alexander Rossi.
It was maddening for Michael Andretti, who had such hope for a turnaround after the organization managed only two wins.
“That’s what we needed, that’s the medicine we needed,” Andretti said. “It was very frustrating, but we knew we had fast cars, and we just kept our heads down and knew if we just kept going, we’d get the results.”
Kirkwood was challenged mid-race by defending Long Beach winner Josef Newgarden but reclaimed the lead when the Team Penske driver pitted for new tires. Kirkwood stayed out for a handful more laps and was able to make his stop for tires and get back on track before Newgarden could reclaim the lead.
Newgarden, the winner two weeks ago at Texas Motor Speedway, dropped to sixth and Kirkwood’s primary challengers over the closing laps were Grosjean and Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing.
But neither got close enough to make an attempt at the pass for the win, and Kirkwood celebrated his first win with Andretti. Grosjean at the end of the race actually seemed to be protecting Kirkwood’s lead from Ericsson.
Kirkwood was part of Andretti’s development system, but the team didn’t have an open IndyCar seat for him when it came time to promote him last season. Kirkwood instead spent the year driving for A.J. Foyt Racing and returned to Andretti this season as the replacement for Alexander Rossi.
Michael Andretti has so much faith in the 24-year-old that he made a personnel change two weeks ago to move Bryan Herta to Kirkwood’s timing stand as strategist. Herta had spent the last two seasons as the strategist for his son, Colton.
“Great drivers, they make it easy,” said Herta. “I really don’t want to take credit for any of this.”
Grosjean finished second and was followed by Ericsson, Colton Herta, and Alex Palou of Ganassi as Honda drivers swept the top-five. The race is sponsored by Acura, a division of Honda, and Kirkwood was presented the winner’s trophy by the CEO of American Honda Motor Company.
Will Power of Team Penske was the highest-finishing Chevrolet at sixth. Newgarden faded to ninth.