KIRKWOOD BLENDS STRATEGY, SPEED TO WIN AT NASHVILLE
Kyle Kirkwood used a combination of smart strategy and raw speed to win the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix on Sunday on the streets of Nashville.
Kirkwood, from Jupiter, Florida, earned the second NTT INDYCAR SERIES win of his career and this season – both on street circuits – in the No. 27 AutoNation Honda fielded by Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood, who started eighth, beat the charging No. 3 DEX Imaging Team Penske Chevrolet of NTT P1 Award winner Scott McLaughlin to the finish by .7633 of a second after a late restart.
“I’ve got to give up to the 27 crew, AutoNation, Andretti, Honda,” Kirkwood said. “They played everything in my favor, to be honest. They gave me all the tools I needed. They cycled me to the front on strategy, and we just made really smart decisions and hit all of our marks. Just a solid day.”
Championship leader Alex Palou finished third in the No. 10 The American Legion Honda of Chip Ganassi Racing. He expanded his lead to 84 points over closest pursuer and Nashville native Josef Newgarden, who placed fourth in the No. 2 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet.
Six-time series champion and 2022 Nashville winner Scott Dixon rounded out the top five in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.
Kirkwood fended off McLaughlin on a restart with just over three laps remaining after a red flag period of 11 minutes. That pause was triggered by a three-car stack-up on Lap 75 of the 80-lap race involving the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet of Felix Rosenqvist, the No. 55 AJ Foyt Racing/Sexton Properties Chevrolet of Benjamin Pedersen and the No. 78 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet of Agustin Canapino in Turn 11.
On the restart at the end of Lap 77, Kirkwood rocketed away on the 11-turn, 2.1-mile temporary street circuit that includes two trips over the Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge per lap, pulling a lead of 1.6 seconds after one green-flag lap.
But McLaughlin and Palou started a hot pursuit in steamy weather conditions of air temperatures in the high 80s and high humidity. McLaughlin sliced more than half of Kirkwood’s lead at the white flag, but he had to settle for his second consecutive runner-up finish from pole in this race.
“Right there at the end, man, they were so fast,” Kirkwood said. “They ran me down just in that last lap.”
Said McLaughlin: “I tried my hardest. Congrats to Kyle and his team. Another top-three, good points. Bummed we didn’t get the win, but we weren’t the best on the day. Kyle was. Hopefully next year we’re running for the championship and win here and win the championship, as well. There will be a huge party on Broadway.”
Kirkwood led a race-high 34 of the 80 laps, including the last 27. But team strategist Bryan Herta may have paved the winning path with a crucial strategy call early in the race that cycled Kirkwood toward the front of the pack for most of the race.
On Lap 14, Palou dove into the pits from the top five during the second of what was expected to be many cautions at this event, where calamity seemingly lurks around every corner. Palou shed his Firestone alternate guayule tires for the more durable but less grippy Firestone primary tire. It was expected the other cars in the lead pack would do the same, but they all stayed out of the pits and tried to extend the life of their alternate tires.
Kirkwood finally made his first stop on Lap 29 after leading Lap 28 during pit cycles, pulling into second behind Palou – on a different strategy – on Lap 33. Kirkwood took the lead on Lap 45 when Palou pitted and surrendered the lead to teammate Romain Grosjean after his final pit stop on Lap 52.
When all the leaders’ stops cycled, Kirkwood was out front on Lap 54 and never trailed thereafter.
The early pit strategy for Palou and Chip Ganassi Racing was based on an abundance of yellow flags in the first two years of this street race, as there were an average of 8.5 cautions in 2021 and 2022. But that nearly backfired as there were just two cautions in the first 71 laps.
Palou was running third and within a few laps of maybe needing a quick, costly final stop for fuel when a welcome third caution flag flew for CGR on Lap 71. Rookie Linus Lundqvist hit the wall in Turn 11 in the No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda fielded by Meyer Shank Racing.
That caution, and the next caution and red flag after the ensuing restart, saved Palou’s spot in the top three and almost certainly his lead of more than 1.5 races over Newgarden in the points with just four races left this season.
“We had the speed,” Palou said. “It was improbable after the call we did on that first yellow. Honestly, we talked about it before the race. We expected more yellows, and it was not the right call. But hey, we survived, we made it work. It was a tough race, but we made the podium and couldn’t be happier now.”
Kirkwood will split $10,000 with Andretti Autosport and his chosen charity, AutoNation DRVPNK, for his victory as part of the PeopleReady Force For Good Challenge.
The next NTT INDYCAR SERIES race is in just six days, the Gallagher Grand Prix on Saturday, Aug. 12 on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. Live coverage starts at 2 p.m. ET on USA Network, Peacock and the INDYCAR Radio Network.
With four races and 216 available points remaining this season, the top eight drivers in the standings remain eligible to win the Astor Challenge Cup. Toronto race winner Christian Lundgaard is eighth in the standings, exactly 216 points behind 2021 season champion Palou.