It can be argued that Devlin DeFrancesco has arrived home in Canada at the right time in this NTT INDYCAR SERIES season.
The driver of the No. 29 BitBuy Honda for Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport is riding the strongest stretch of his still-young career, recording three of his best finishes in the past four races.
Next up is this weekend’s Honda Indy Toronto, the annual race at Exhibition Place, a short drive across town from where the Toronto native was born and nursed to health after weighing only 1 pound at birth. It’s also where loads of family, friends and business supporters will cheer him on.
The timing of his hometown race couldn’t be better.
“One hundred percent, you’ve hit the nail on the head,” DeFrancesco said of the momentum he and his crew have generated over the past two months. “Everything is just connecting at the right time right now. We just need to put a whole weekend together.”
In May, DeFrancesco finished 13th in the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, and he followed that strong performance with a 12th-place finish in the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear. The latter tied his best career finish, set last year in the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Axalta and Valvoline at World Wide Technology Raceway.
Following the Detroit race, DeFrancesco posted his best qualifying round of this season in the Sonsio Grand Prix at Road America presented by AMR, and he ran as high as eighth in the race before being shuffled back on a mid-race restart and finishing 23rd. He put aside a difficult qualifying session in the most-recent race, the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Presented by the 2023 Accord Hybrid, to finish 14th after running between 10th and 12th most of the race. The combination of events has his confidence soaring.
Now comes this weekend’s Toronto race, where last year he advanced to the second round of knockout qualifying for the first time. The race didn’t end with his best finish – he was 18th – but it helped set the stage for this eager return.
“At Andretti Autosport, we have good street course pace, so that makes it all the better for this weekend,” DeFrancesco said. “I’m really excited about returning.”
Official practice on the 11-turn, 1.786-mile temporary street circuit begins at 3 p.m. ET Friday (Peacock, INDYCAR Radio Network).
All four Andretti Autosport drivers have shown well on street circuits this season. Romain Grosjean opened the year by winning the NTT P1 Award at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding, a race he might have won if not for contact from Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin in a fight for the lead that resulted in both cars hitting the Turn 4 tire barrier.
Kyle Kirkwood dominated the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, leading 53 of the 85 laps from the pole with Grosjean and Colton Herta finishing second and fourth, respectively. The team didn’t qualify well on Detroit’s new downtown street circuit, but Kirkwood, Herta and DeFrancesco combined to improve 24 positions in the race. DeFrancesco contributed five of those positions.
DeFrancesco hitting his stride in his second INDYCAR SERIES season shouldn’t come as a surprise. With the limited testing opportunities in this era of the sport, there are many examples of newcomers making big year-over-year gains. The most obvious of those is Alex Palou, who with a move to Chip Ganassi Racing for his second season earned the 2021 series championship. Herta’s second season, in 2019, produced his first two race wins, and Kirkwood also became a race winner in this his second season.
As veteran engineer and current Andretti Autosport technical director Eric Bretzman recently told DeFrancesco, rookie drivers in the early 2000s had the benefit of considerable seat time in testing, perhaps as much as current newcomers get all season in races.
“It’s quite easy to see what a difference that makes,” DeFrancesco said.
Bear in mind, the 23-year-old driver still has only 26 NTT INDYCAR SERIES starts after only one season in INDY NXT by Firestone. He is still growing into his career.
DeFrancesco’s improvement also comes at a pivotal time as rides are being settled for the 2024 season. He said he has left that side of the business to his management group, although he is not expected to return to Andretti Autosport for a third year.
“I just need to stay focused and finish strong these last few races with Andretti Autosport,” he said. “We’re coming up on some tracks that I really like, including (World Wide Technology Raceway), where I won my first oval race (in Indy Pro 2000 in 2020). We should be quite fast there (in the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 on Aug. 27). We’ve got a few different (setup) things within the team for that race, so that should be a fun event.
“(WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca) has been repaved, so that race (the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on Sept. 10) should be really fast, and I’m looking forward to getting back there. And, of course, there’s this weekend, which should be good.”
A lot is rolling in DeFrancesco’s direction these days. It’s good to be home.
Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto will be streamed exclusively on Peacock in the United States at 1:30 p.m. ET, with the INDYCAR Radio Network also offering live coverage. Canada’s live broadcast will be on TSN.