Today’s question: The first NTT INDYCAR SERIES open test of the 2023 season is scheduled for next Thursday and Friday, Feb. 2-3, at The Thermal Club near Palm Springs, California. After asking this question last week about teams, what driver intrigues you the most at this test?
Curt Cavin: Obviously, there are many, but my eyes will be focused on Alexander Rossi over the next few months. How does he transition to his first new team since 2016? Does a fresh start with Arrow McLaren Racing lead to consistently better positions on the time chart? Does Rossi seem to be enjoying his new challenge? I think he should be more of a consistent factor in 2023, but we can’t sleep on the fact this is an incredibly competitive series. In addition to regularly racing against teammates Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist, Rossi will have the cast at Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport, among others, to contend with each week. Can he finish in the top three of the standings as he did most recently in 2018, or will the competition keep him in the 8-to-10 range as it did the past three years? Again, it will be a fascinating watch, and it begins to take shape this week at The Thermal Club.
Joey Barnes: Callum Ilott. There was so much growth out of him and Juncos Hollinger Racing in 2022, including both his and the team’s first-ever top 10 in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES with an eighth-place finish in a wet and wild GMR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. The duo proved it was no fluke by capturing a second top 10 (ninth) at the penultimate round, at Portland International Raceway. The Briton had a career weekend in the cards at the season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, qualifying a best-ever second and leading a lap before a mechanical issue put a premature end to a fantastic run after 37 or 95 laps. In truth, there were several outings that showcased the No. 77 JHR Chevrolet’s promising pace – most notably in practice and qualifying – throughout Brit’s rookie campaign despite being the lone full-time outfit in North America’s premier open-wheel championship. Now, JHR expands to two cars in 2023, which, in combination with a year of experience under his belt, could be hugely beneficial for Ilott. Assuming the growth projects upward at the same trajectory, Ilott could be in for a sensational sophomore campaign in 2023.
Paul Kelly: I’ll glance up and down live timing and scoring both days at Thermal, looking for any bread crumbs of clues about who may be strong and who may need work at the season-opener March 5 in St. Petersburg. But I’m paying close attention to Kyle Kirkwood (photo, above). The Floridian entered the NTT INDYCAR SERIES last season with plenty of hype, as he became the only driver to win all three rungs of the Road to Indy ladder system, with consecutive championships in USF2000, USF Pro 2000 and INDY NXT by Firestone. But Kirkwood struggled at times last season as a rookie with AJ Foyt Racing, finishing 24th in the series standings and last among the four full-time rookies in the field in 2022. His best finish was 10th at Long Beach. Kirkwood admitted during Content Day media interviews Tuesday that he overdrove the Foyt car at times, trying to wring its neck for more speed, leading to too many crashes. The price of poker has gone up this season as he moves back to Andretti Autosport, for which he won the INDY NXT title in 2021. Expectations are higher for podium finishes and victories at Andretti than at Foyt, and Kirkwood will be expected to deliver as the replacement for 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi. It’s still early days, but a strong showing at Thermal will go a long way toward getting Kirkwood off on the right tire track for his Andretti tenure.