Race Report: Firestone GP

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (Feb. 27, 2022). — Small victories…you have to take them where you find them. In this weekend’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, there were a few for the AJ Foyt Racing team even if the final results don’t reflect them.

Qualifying proved to be one of the bright spots as both rookie Kyle Kirkwood and veteran Dalton Kellett put themselves in the top half of the 26-car field. In the race, they showed good pace in the No. 14 ROKiT Chevrolet and No. 4 K-Line Insulators Chevrolet respectively in the early going around the 1.8-mile street circuit. With a lot of new faces in new places, pit stops also went well. Plus rookie Tatiana Calderón, the only female driver confirmed to compete on the road and street courses this season, crossed the finish line under the checkered flag in the No. 11 ROKiT Chevrolet in what proved to be a grueling test of physical endurance.

Kirkwood started 12th, pitted early on lap 10 to shed the softer Firestone alternate compound tires in favor of the more durable primary compound tires as did Kellett who started 14th and pitted on lap 12. Following the stops, both drivers dropped down in the field as other teams utilized a two-stop strategy which in the end, proved the way to go due to the long yellow brought about by rookie David Malukas’s crash on lap 25. It necessitated a wall repair and the extended caution period favored those drivers whose plan was just two stops for the 100-lapper.

After the other teams pitted for the first time during the caution, both drivers vaulted into the top 10 for the lap 33 restart with Kirkwood in sixth and Kellett in ninth. They remained there until pitting eight laps later which dropped them down the order again.

Kellett’s race was cut short at the halfway point when a mechanical issue forced him to the pits for an unscheduled stop. The crew made some adjustments to address the issue and Kellett rejoined the race, albeit 10 laps in arrears. The issue surfaced again so the team parked the car and a disappointed Kellett took the long walk back to the garage after posting one of his most competitive drives since he joined the NTT INDYCAR Series.

Strategist Grant Weaver talks to Kellett whose race was cut short due to mechanical issues.

“Not the finish we were looking for,” the 28-year-old Canadian said. “We had really high hopes and expectations coming in from our best qualifying in INDYCAR so far, so I have to commend the No. 4 K-Line Insulators Chevy team for that performance. That was a great day on Saturday – really happy with how it went. Obviously, we were wanting more in the race but suffered a mechanical issue and will figure out what happened there, diagnose that, and make sure it doesn’t happen again. It’s part of the process and learning how to do this better every weekend and that’s all we can ask for. Just got to keep grooving and take the positives from this weekend and go into Texas.”

Kirkwood found himself running with the likes of Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud for most of the race but towards the end he had to aggressively save fuel and lost a position to Felix Rosenqvist. Kirkwood placed 18th.

Kirkwood does post-race de-brief with (L to R): race engineer Mike Colliver, race strategist Scott Harner, Sébastien Bourdais and Chevrolet engineer.

“I’m super happy with the outcome of everything,” said the 23-year-old Jupiter, Fla. native. “I think this weekend there’s a lot of new moving parts going on, along with myself, and everyone executed. Yeah, we were on the wrong strategy and we got hosed by a caution but that’s part of racing. We showed this entire weekend that we have pace and we showed pace in the race with the ROKiT Chevrolet. We ran right there with veteran drivers like Newgarden and Pagenaud. I was super happy with that. I was thrilled I kind of ran Newgarden down at one point so I couldn’t ask for anything better than that to be honest for my first ever race. It’s just unfortunate we were on the wrong strategy but we were on the right strategy until the caution came out.”

Calderón was the first to admit that the race was her toughest with a capital T but she felt she gained

a lot of insight from the experience. Although she finished 24th, she is determined to come back stronger at the Long Beach Grand Prix in April.

“It was the toughest race physically of my career,” said the 28-year-old Colombian rookie. “Obviously, a hundred laps with only one caution was quite hard but I think we managed to get a feeling for both tire compounds. I did a few mistakes running out of road and a few things but sometimes you have to learn the hard way. But I was happy to cross the line to get a bit more information, a bit more fitness for what’s coming next. And to know where I need to improve as well and where I can maybe help with the balance of the cars, so I’m quite happy with all that information. Hopefully, we can come back to Long Beach and push harder.”

Pole sitter Scott McLaughlin swept the show to claim his first career INDYCAR victory and gave Roger Penske his second straight victory–the first coming last weekend in the Daytona 500 with Austin Cindric. McLaughlin fended off reigning NTT INDYCAR Series champion Alex Palou as well as Will Power, Colton Herta and Romain Grosjean.

Team President Larry Foyt said, “It was a tough race day after a really good weekend leading up to today. We were hoping for some better finishes. On the 14 car, the strategy didn’t pay out with the way the long yellow fell due to the wall repair–it definitely hurt the strategy the 14 and the 4 were on. And it’s unfortunate the 4 car had a mechanical problem and couldn’t finish the race. Kyle and Dalton were really happy with their cars and it looks like we have a pretty good street course package. We believe that will continue throughout the year. Both guys did a really good job and drove really hard.

Tatiana did a nice job in her first INDYCAR race, and she made it to the finish. It was definitely the toughest race she’s ever done, so I think she learned a lot and will keep improving from here. We have to look at the positives, we showed good pace in qualifying, now we just need to put the whole weekend together.”

Small victories lead to big ones.