The NTT INDYCAR SERIES is driving closer to its first oval race of the season – the XPEL 375 at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday, March 20 (12:30 p.m. ET, live on NBC and INDYCAR Radio Network), which means it’s time for rookies to get up to speed on circle tracks.
This rookie test, March 2 on the 1.5-mile oval, prepared NTT INDYCAR SERIES rookies for the fast and close-quarters competition. All rookies must complete the Speedway Rookie Program before they can race at Texas and participate in Indy 500 Rookie Orientation Program.
The six drivers participating in Wednesday’s nine-hour test: Kyle Kirkwood (No. 14 AJ Foyt Racing), David Malukas (No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing with HMD), Romain Grosjean (No. 28 Andretti Autosport), Devlin DeFrancesco (No. 29 Andretti Autosport), Christian Lundgaard (No. 30 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing) and Callum Ilott (No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Racing). Grosjean was not required to participate due to oval testing and racing last year at World Wide Technology Raceway but took the option to do so.
Here are five takeaways:
Kirkwood Continues To Show He’s Real Deal
No official times and speeds were released, but media reports indicated that Kirkwood was the fastest driver in Texas as he continues to show he’s already a rising star in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.
His rise to No. 1 came late in the session as teams and drivers ran in a draft. Kirkwood clocked a top speed just shy of 220 mph. Before that, reports indicated that Grosjean was pacing the six-car field.
AJ Foyt Racing’s rookie Kirkwood put down a reported best lap that would have landed him in the top five in practice for last year’s NTT INDYCAR SERIES doubleheader weekend at Texas. He also had seasoned oval veteran JR Hildebrand on hand to coach him in his first time driving an NTT INDYCAR SERIES car on an oval.
While it was his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES outing on an oval, this wasn’t Kirkwood’s first time only turning left. He competed in two oval races last year in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires. He finished second in both races at World Wide Technology Raceway.
Ilott Lands Impressive Run in Oval Debut
Arguably the most impressive run to come out of the speedway rookie test was Ilott’s performance, which reports indicate landed him second on the speed charts.
Bear in mind Wednesday was the first time the Brit has driven on an oval. Ever. Ilott grew up racing in Europe and was on the Formula One ladder until late last year. The fact that he picked up on this new style of racing from the get-go says wonders about his talent.
Plus, any time a single-car team like Juncos Hollinger Racing can compete with the multi-car teams is a good day for the organization. Remember, this is the team that knocked Fernando Alonso out of the Indianapolis 500 field in 2019 with Kyle Kaiser’s dramatic, memorable qualifying run.
Ilott and JHR also had the expertise of 2012 NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion and 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, who was on hand in Texas to help coach Ilott.
Ilott had an edge over fellow rookie Lundgaard, the only other driver at the test who had never ran high-speed laps on an oval.
Malukas Banks Laps for Added Experience
While reports indicate that Malukas wasn’t the fastest – settling in the middle of the speed charts – he certainly got the most out of the day by completing 210 laps.
For reference, at last year’s NTT INDYCAR SERIES doubleheader at Texas, the first race was 300 miles and the second race was 375 miles. On Wednesday, Malukas completed 315 miles in the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing with HMD Honda.
Chicago-area resident Malukas isn’t completely new to ovals. In fact, of all the rookies at the test, he has competed in the most oval races thanks to his experience in Indy Lights.
In 2019, Malukas ran at Indianapolis and World Wide Technology Raceway. Last year, he swept the doubleheader weekend at WWTR to score two of his seven wins.
Tight Speed Chart
One of the most exciting pieces of analysis to come out of Wednesday’s test was the closeness of the field, with just two-tenths of a second separating the top four drivers.
Even at that, the bottom two lap speeds set by DeFrancesco and Lundgaard were competitive. Had their speeds come during last year’s practice session (qualifying was rained out), they would have been just outside the top 10 on the chart.
It was an early look at what we can expect in this year’s XPEL 375 – which is to say that this year’s race will feature a tight field mere inches apart. As of now, the race on Sunday, March 20 could be anyone’s victory.
Veterans Up Next on Monday
Next up on the testing schedule is another run at TMS Monday, March 7 as a group of veterans get acclimated to the 1.5-mile oval before they race there later this month.
Set to test in Texas are the Team Penske trio of Scott McLaughlin, Josef Newgarden and Will Power, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon, Alex Palou, Marcus Ericsson and Jimmie Johnson, and Ed Carpenter Racing’s Conor Daly and Rinus VeeKay.
Then on Tuesday, March 8, two other teams will take to the natural road course at Barber Motorsports Park for a test: Andretti Autosport’s DeFrancesco, Grosjean, Colton Herta and Alexander Rossi, and Rahal Letterman Lanigan’s Lundgaard, Jack Harvey and Graham Rahal.
Barber hosts the fourth race of the season, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst on Sunday, May 1.