Josef Newgarden Kyle Kirkwood Romain Grosjean

Kyle Kirkwood didn’t just capture his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES victory in last weekend’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, he went to school in the process. The unsuspecting teacher was two-time series champion Josef Newgarden.

Newgarden has won 26 races in this series, tied for 15th most in the sport’s history. When he grabbed the lead from Kirkwood in last weekend’s third race of the year, it was familiar. Kirkwood certainly isn’t new to motorsports success, but for the first time in his still-young career, he was running in a different hierarchy.

Kirkwood wasn’t happy to lose the Long Beach lead, but with the calm advice of his strategist, former driver Bryan Herta, he decided to make the best of the situation. Besides, who better to learn from than Newgarden?

So, for 27 laps, the 24-year-old Kirkwood ran in Newgarden’s shadow, watching his moves, studying his decision making and matching his aggression -- lessons that figure to help him win more races in the future.

“Josef really showed me why he’s a championship-caliber driver and many-time race winner,” Kirkwood said during Thursday’s Indy 500 Open Test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “(He showed) his tricks, and I feel like I learned a few things just being behind him for those few laps.

“It was unfortunate to be (behind him) but looking back on it – Wow! – I’m like that was a good thing to learn that and still get the win from it.”

Kirkwood’s victory came in just his 20th series race. He spent last year driving for AJ Foyt Racing, which doesn’t field a car as historically strong as Team Penske does for Newgarden and others. While the depth of competition is as deep as it has ever been in this series, Kirkwood said there is a difference between how a driver works in the lead group as opposed to doing so further back in the pack.

Hence, his Long Beach learning experience.

“Being up front is a completely different race than when you’re in the middle of the pack,” he said. “Back there you’re trying to push so hard, trying to think quickly on what you need to do whereas if you’re up front, you’re controlling the pace, planning things out, planning ahead, trying to hit a fuel number, trying to do this and trying to do that. It’s almost like a slower pace, which is completely opposite than what a normal person might think.

“(Newgarden) knew where to gap me and where not to gap me, and he knew exactly when I was trying to close that gap and when I wasn’t, and he managed the pace really well based on that. I was trying to push him to use more fuel because I knew (he) might have a fuel deficit, and (I tried to) get him to use his tires up – use everything he had – and he wouldn’t. I couldn’t get around him, and it was frustrating.”

Pato O’Ward is a couple of years further down the path Kirkwood is on. He, too, was a former INDY NXT by Firestone champion charged with learning how to beat the established drivers of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, stars like Newgarden, six-time series champion Scott Dixon, two-time and reigning series champion Will Power and Alexander Rossi.

It is challenging, O’Ward said Thursday, and there is much to learn from the elite.

“You learn things from them because they keep beating you, so you find out why,” O’Ward said. “We’ve grown up watching these guys, right? When you’re racing them, they’re even more clever.

“You need to think when you need to (pass) them and how you’re going to do it. If they see where you’re stronger, they’re going to make sure you don’t get by right there. When you’ve only got one shot (to pass), it puts a lot of emphasis maybe not on studying them, but you have to beat them at their own game.”

O’Ward, 22, now has won four races in the series and finished second to Marcus Ericsson, who spent five years in Formula One, in last year’s Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge. O’Ward and Newgarden have finished first or second in the same race seven times, but Newgarden holds a 5-2 advantage, something of which O’Ward is well aware.

Newgarden was ahead of O’Ward – and Kirkwood – again Thursday at IMS, pacing the field at 227.686 mph in the No. 2 Shell Team Penske Chevrolet. Kirkwood was fourth at 226.727 in the No. 27 AutoNation Honda, O’Ward ninth at 225.553 in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet. All three drivers expect to be contenders when official “500” practice begins Tuesday, May 16.

Kirkwood knows he still has much to learn about the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, and the pressure to win races as one of the sport’s bright young stars has not gone away because he surely will have to deal with Newgarden – and others – down the road. After all, Newgarden surely learned things about Kirkwood last weekend, too.

“Now it almost seems like there’s more pressure (to excel) because people are like, ‘OK, now that he’s proved (he can win), let’s see him continue to do this,’ you know?” Kirkwood said. “There’s pressure from that, as well, so it’s just a new type of pressure. So, it will continue.”

Kirkwood’s next chance to drive Andretti Autosport’s No. 27 AutoNation Honda into victory lane will come Sunday, April 30 in the Children’s of Alabama Indy Grand Prix at Barber Motorsports Park (3 p.m. ET, NBC, Peacock, INDYCAR LIVE and the INDYCAR Radio Network).