Kirkwood hails new strategist Herta after first IndyCar win

Kyle Kirkwood Bryan Herta

Bryan Herta (left) and Kyle Kirkwood (right)

Kyle Kirkwood has paid tribute to his new strategist, Bryan Herta, following his breakthrough IndyCar race win at Long Beach.

Kirkwood converted a first pole position into a first victory early in his second season in the series, although it was hardly as straightforward as those statistics might suggest.

The Andretti Autosport driver lost the official lead during the first pit stop cycle when Agustin Canapino was left out, then the effective lead to Josef Newgarden when he was delayed by the squabble between Canapino, the Argentine’s Juncos Hollinger Racing team-mate Callum Ilott, and Helio Castroneves.

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He trailed Newgarden for 26 laps but would regain first position for good when the second pit stop cycle shook out, and had enough in reserve to beat team-mate Romain Grosjean to the chequers by just under one second.

The Grand Prix of Long Beach was Kirkwood’s second event with Herta on his radio, after the four-time IndyCar race winner (two IRL, two Champ Car) was shifted off son Colton’s car in a direct swap with Scott Harner following the season-opener.

The 2021 Indy Lights champion gave credit to team owner Michael Andretti but had particular praise for his new strategist.

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“One thing that’s really nice about Michael, he obviously has so much information that he can share with us,” said Kirkwood.

“But he knows that he’s hired a tonne of good people that will get the job done, with that being Bryan Herta, who has kind of mentored me through this entire weekend.

“He pretty much told me, like, ‘This weekend, if you’re up front, we’ve already done the hard part, the rest of it is pretty easy for you.

“’You’re going to be surprised how easy it is to win a race when you’ve already done the hard work and you’re out front and you’re doing all the right things and you have a fast car.’

“He’s exactly right. ‘It’s going to be just like the Road to Indy, anything you’ve ever done. You won a tonne of races.’

“He was really the one that kept my head cool. Once Newgarden got in front of us at one point in that race, he had me push a few laps, then calm down, try to get Newgarden to use up his tyres. I think we played a fantastic strategy with all that.

“Everyone at the team has been calm all weekend long. That helps me as a young driver just keep my head straight.”

The 24-year-old declared that Long Beach was the next-best place to score his first IndyCar race win after the Indianapolis 500, a feat achieved by his predecessor in Car #27, new McLaren driver Alexander Rossi, back in 2016.

“It’s incredible. The next best race to win outside of this one, in my mind, is Indianapolis, right?” mused Kirkwood.

“For someone to have their first win at Indianapolis, I guess Rossi did it; yeah, wow.

“It’s so cool. It’s so cool. Everything has been timed perfectly. I’m so thankful for the opportunity that they’ve given me.

“The car was amazing; it was fantastic. The feeling I got at the end, I was trying to hold tears back in the car which is something I’ve never really felt before all through the ladder system.

“It almost feels like through my entire open-wheel ladder series career, I always wanted more.

“I’d win a bunch of races and I’d be like, Okay, I need to get to the next one, keep progressing.

“[Long Beach] was the first time I was able to actually soak it in and acknowledge I’ve done something incredible. So it’s really cool.”

Kirkwood has now jumped to fifth in the series standings ahead of the trip to Barber Motorsports Park next week, an event which will be streamed live, ad-free, and on-demand on Stan Sport.

Before then, however, the IndyCar field is back in action at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the pre-500 Open Test, this Thursday and Friday (local time; Friday and Saturday AEST).

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