Kyle Kirkwood

Kyle Kirkwood beamed at last week’s open test at The Thermal Club, brimming with energy and confidence as this NTT INDYCAR SERIES season offers him a restart from one of the most challenging rookie seasons of late.

As he put it, using his new ride at Andretti Autosport to impressively pace the final practice of the test helped him “definitely” leave in a happier spot than he did after most of the series events last year.

Last season wasn’t one to forget for Kirkwood, the 2021 champion of INDY NXT by Firestone; quite the opposite. The 24-year-old Floridian thinks not only was it a learning experience with AJ Foyt Racing, it was a necessary first trip through the most diverse and challenging series in motorsports.

“Now that I’ve gotten into this year and taken (a) step back and kind of looked at it, I’m like, ‘Man, I needed a year to learn and try and hone in on my skills and learn all the different things about INDYCAR that you don’t learn in junior formulas,’” Kirkwood said. “Biggest things (are) pit stops and strategy and having two different types of tires. Those are way different than anything I (had) done.”

After finishing 24th in NTT INDYCAR SERIES points last season, it could be easy to forget how dominant Kirkwood had been in capturing the three consecutive lower divisions, capped by INDY NXT. He has long been pegged as North American open-wheel racing’s next big thing, but last year couldn’t have been more challenging. Seven of his 17 races ended with contact, and he led only five of the season’s 2,268 laps with just a single top-10 finish.

The struggles were often attributed to Kirkwood overdriving the No. 14 car, something he acknowledged during media interviews last week.

“That’s completely fair to say – you could definitely say that,” he said. “But at the end of the day, when you’re 20th (in the running order) and you feel stuck, naturally you’re not going to just give up, (and) you’re going to push to the absolute limits. In a sense, that’s what we did.

“We overachieved some places, and we underachieved by trying to overachieve at some other places. It’s unfortunate, but I learned so much, and I can’t wait to take what I learned into this season.”

The Thermal Club won’t host an NTT INDYCAR SERIES race in 2023 and doesn’t have the physical characteristics to suggest the time sheets will carry over to the season that begins March 3-5 with a street race in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding, but all signs point to a strong year ahead for Kirkwood in the No. 27 Honda.

For starters, consider that Kirkwood is back with the team that propelled him to the INDY NXT championship with 10 wins in 20 races. He said he frequently had moments last year when he wondered what Andretti Autosport’s secret sauce had been in their time together.

“It’s kind of funny because in 2022, I felt like the entire year I was trying to mimic what the Andretti car was like, and I feel like I never got to that point with the AJ Foyt car,” he said. “(I was) curious to get back in that (organization) and see and know what we were missing. It’s something that’s kind of been eating me alive through the offseason because you knew that’s something Andretti was not going to tell me.”

This year, Kirkwood will receive much of that information from Jeremy Milless, the veteran engineer who has won NTT INDYCAR SERIES races with Josef Newgarden (at Ed Carpenter Racing) and Alexander Rossi (at Andretti Autosport).

Kirkwood also is looking forward to having Colton Herta as a teammate because in INDY NXT he drove setups similar to what Herta had used with the team. Kirkwood believes his driving style compares favorably with that of Herta, who has won races in four consecutive seasons, seven in all.

In Kirkwood, Herta sees a quality teammate, one he expects to make a big jump in 2023.

“It’s hard to judge off of what he did last year, right?” said Herta, who similarly cut his NTT INDYCAR SERIES teeth with a smaller team (Harding Steinbrenner Racing) before joining Andretti Autosport for his second full season in the series. “This year you have a better understanding of how fast he is, I think.

“I think if you’re looking at it from Michael’s (Andretti) perspective, to get rookie mistakes out of the way (last year) in somebody else’s machinery, it’s valuable for him. But yeah, I think we’ll see a much more rounded driver. I feel like that’s your biggest gain in INDYCAR is from your rookie year to your second year.”

That’s what Kirkwood is hoping for, and he is off to a good start.