Today’s question: What was your biggest takeaway from the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach last Sunday?
Curt Cavin: Josef Newgarden is the driver to beat for this year’s championship. Yes, it’s early, only three races into a 17-race calendar with a slew of points available in the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge. But look at the road ahead: Twelve tracks remain, and Newgarden – already the series points leader – has won at eight of them, including three times each at Barber Motorsports Park, Iowa Speedway and World Wide Technology Raceway. He has won twice in Toronto and twice at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, and he has single wins on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, in Detroit and at Road America. Not only is the deck stacked in Newgarden’s favor, he knows how to play those cards as well as anyone in the sport.
Zach Horrall: While I agree that Newgarden has likely made himself the favorite for the Astor Challenge Cup after his Long Beach win, my takeaway from Southern California was that there are two other drivers we cannot lose sight of: Will Power and Alex Palou. Power has quietly put together the best average finish of anyone thus far with 3.6 after finishes of third, fourth and fourth, respectively. Power has said for the last few years that if he can start the season strong, he’ll be a title contender. Now, it’s time to see if that is true. As for Palou, he’s put together the next best average finish of the season in fourth after finishes of second, seventh and third, respectively, in the early stages of his NTT INDYCAR SERIES title defense. Plus, Palou has been remarkably consistent over the last year, scoring his 10th podium in 19 races with Chip Ganassi Racing this weekend. Both drivers have a better average finish than Scott McLaughlin (5.6) and Newgarden (sixth), and I believe we’re in the early stages of a four-way race for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship between Newgarden, McLaughlin, Palou and Power.
Paul Kelly: Kyle Kirkwood continues to mark himself as a future star in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES after three races with AJ Foyt Racing. Kirkwood is the only driver to win all three championships on the Road to Indy ladder system, so there were a lot of expectations for him entering his rookie NTT INDYCAR SERIES season this year. Sure, he’s 20th in the series standings after three races, but that’s deceptive. Kirkwood was flying through the field in the XPEL 375 before making a rookie mistake and crashing. But instead of crawling inside of a turtle shell after that disappointment, Kirkwood qualified 12th and finished 10th on the challenging Long Beach circuit for the Foyt team, only two spots behind where four-time INDYCAR SERIES champion Sebastien Bourdais finished last September at Long Beach in Foyt’s car. Combine that mental resiliency with his natural talent and polished professionalism in and out of the car, and it won’t be long until one of INDYCAR’s recent title-winning teams snaps up Kirkwood for its driver lineup. He’s clearly the leader of Generation Next.