Kyle Kirkwood

Kyle Kirkwood advanced through the first round of qualifying in his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES event, and he will start in the top half of a talented 26-driver field for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding.

No surprise, right?

Kirkwood has been a phenom in becoming the first driver to win championships in the three development categories – USF2000, Indy Pro 2000 and Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires -- and he did so in successive seasons. He didn’t just win championships, either. He won 31 of the 60 races in which he competed.

Kirkwood, 23, might be an INDYCAR rookie, but he expected big results with AJ Foyt Racing’s No. 14 ROKiT Chevrolet. For example, he wanted to reach the Firestone Fast Six round in Saturday’s qualifying session, and he nearly got there. He blamed falling short on a mistake he made on the first corner of what was to be his best lap.

“I was playing catch-up from there and pushing my brake points further,” he said.

Later in that hot lap, Kirkwood brushed the outside wall in Turn 9, the same tricky corner where veterans Jack Harvey and Alex Palou smacked it in the morning practice. Concerned about potential damage to the car’s left side, Kirkwood backed off and settled for the 12th starting position.

“I think we were the quickest of the (six) rookies, so that was the first goal,” said Kirkwood, a native of Jupiter, Florida. “But I really wanted the top six. I think we had the car to do it.”

Not reaching his goal early in the season has been a theme of Kirkwood’s career. In Indy Pro 2000, he qualified ninth for the first race and had an average finish of 7.7 in his first four races before putting a hurt on the competition, winning nine of the final 11 races. The situation was similar last year in Indy Lights as he finished 14th and fifth in the opening doubleheader at Barber Motorsports Park before rattling off 10 victories in the final 18 races. (Take note: He has won 19 of his past 29 open-wheel races.)

As for this 14-turn, 1.8-mile temporary street circuit, Kirkwood said he literally feels right at home. After all, his home is just three hours to the east on Florida’s Atlantic Coast.

“I’ve got a lot of friends and family here, and they’ll be cheering me on,” Kirkwood said of the race that airs live at noon ET on NBC and Telemundo Deportes on Universo, with the INDYCAR Radio Network also on the call. “I’ve got a lot of experience here and wins in previous categories, USF2000 and Indy Lights. Hopefully take that knowledge over to this come tomorrow.”

Kirkwood wasn’t the only rookie to have an impressive qualifying performance Saturday, although keep in mind the field is extremely deep.

Christian Lundgaard (No. 30 Shield Cleaners Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing) earned the 15th starting position with Devlin DeFrancesco (No. 29 PowerTap Honda of Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport) 18th, Callum Ilott (No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet) 19th, David Malukas (No. 18 HMD Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD) 24th and Tatiana Calderon (No. 11 ROKiT/AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet) 25th.

Malukas had his two fastest laps removed due to interference with Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Carvana Honda of Chip Ganassi Racing).

O’Ward Ready To Dig from Deep Starting Spot

Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet) will start Sunday’s race from the 16th position, which could be a good sign for him given he started there last year in Detroit when he won his most recent INDYCAR race.

But O’Ward felt he would have been much farther up on this grid if not for a mistake in the first round of qualifying.

“I had the pace to do it, for sure, the car had it,” he said. “Note to self for next time: Don’t touch the wall halfway through your lap if you want to transfer. It’s all my mistake. Just didn’t judge the amount of the snap that I was going to get. I didn’t want to back out of it.

“Now, face the consequences.”

O’Ward, who finished third in last year’s championship standings, is taking solace in the fact he will have an additional set of Firestone’s alternate red tires that many other drivers who went through additional qualifying rounds Saturday will not.

“I think that can play into the strategy we pick out,” he said. “Let’s see where we go.”

Championship Often Goes To Race 1 Winner

Winning Sunday’s race is not all about taking home a trophy. It could be a springboard to a second trophy, as well.

The past three INDYCAR champions have won the season-opening race, albeit at different venues. Josef Newgarden used the 2019 victory in St. Petersburg to begin his title pursuit, while Scott Dixon did the same in 2020 with a win at Texas Motor Speedway and Alex Palou did likewise last year after taking the checkered flag at Barber Motorsports Park.

Since 2001, 14 INDYCAR champions were winners of their season’s first race, including Will Power at St. Petersburg in 2014. Dixon also used a victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway to kick off his 2008 title-winning season.

Colton Herta, who won last year’s St. Petersburg race from the pole and will start third in the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda of Andretti Autosport w/Curb-Agajanian, recognized the importance of getting a season with championship aspirations off to a strong start. After all, he got collected in Newgarden’s incident in last year’s season-opening race at Barber Motorsports Park and finished 22nd.

“It kind of sets the mindset for the rest of the year,” Herta said of the first race of any season. “You see the last few years the guys who win the championship they either win (the first) race or they finish in the top three. So, it’s gets you in the mindset – gets the whole team in the mindset – for what’s to come.

“(A good start) is what we’re going to try to do.”

Odds And Ends

  • Rinus VeeKay (No. 21 SONAX Chevrolet of Ed Carpenter Racing) had his best qualifying effort – fourth – since breaking his collarbone in a cycling accident last June.
  • Six-time INDYCAR champion Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Honda of Chip Ganassi Racing) settled for the seventh starting position after hitting the Turn 9 wall during the second round of qualifying. “Not sure how I didn’t break (anything),” he said.
  • Dalton Kellett (No. 4 K-Line/AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet) qualified a career-best 14th. His previous best in 24 attempts was 19th (last year in the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix, a street race in Nashville, Tennessee).
  • Jordan King, who had held INDYCAR’s qualifying record at this track since 2018, was watching Saturday’s session. Just prior to qualifying, he tweeted that he “might be dethroned after four years holding the title.”
  • Will Power (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet) had some fun with teammate Scott McLaughlin (No. 3 DEX Imaging Team Penske Chevrolet) after McLaughlin won his first NTT P1 Award Saturday. “I think it’s a one-off thing; he falls off a cliff now,” Power said, laughing. Responded McLaughlin, “Bring it on.”
  • McLaughlin won 76 poles over seven seasons in Australia’s V8 Supercars series. He averaged nearly 15 a season in his final four years. His first INDYCAR pole came in his 18th event.
  • McLaughlin noted this will be his first rolling start as a pole winner since his karting days. Supercars use a standing start.
  • Teams will get one more chance to fine tune their cars ahead of the race with a morning warmup at 8:45 a.m. (ET) Sunday. The 30-minute practice will be carried live on Peacock Premium.
  • Nolan Siegel of DEForce Racing won Saturday’s Indy Pro 2000 race from start to finish and moved into the series points lead after Friday’s race winner, Josh Green of Turn 3 Motorsport, finished 11th. The next two races are at Barber Motorsports Park during INDYCAR’s April 29-May 1 event weekend.
  • Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires and USF2000 will stage their only and second races of this event weekend Sunday at 9:30 a.m. and 10:45 a.m., respectively. The Indy Lights race will air on Peacock Premium.