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‘My God, we needed this so bad': Andretti delivers powerful rebound in Long Beach

Kyle Kirkwood drives from pole position to victory circle in the Grand Prix of Long Beach to capture his first career IndyCar Series win.

LONG BEACH, California – The lasting impression of Andretti Autosport after the IndyCar season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 5 was from a camera on the team’s pit stand that showed team owner Michael Andretti dealing with a series of frustrations.

Whether it was Devlin DeFrancesco going airborne in the infamous first-lap crash in Turn 3 to Kyle Kirkwood also going airborne over Jack Harvey in a multicar crash in Turn 4 on Lap 41, each time the camera caught Andretti reacting in frustration.

But wait, there’s more.

FIRST-TIME WINNER: Kyle Kirkwood wins Long Beach

FULL STATS PACKAGE: Results and points from Long Beach
Colton Herta hit the tire barriers on Lap 50 -- leaving pole-sitter Romain Grosjean as Andretti Autosport’s last hope of saving the day for the team.

But then Grosjean got caught in a side-by-side battle with Scott McLaughlin for the lead, the two cars touched, and both ended up in the Turn 4 tire barrier.

The lasting memory of that race for Andretti Autosport was Michael Andretti pounding his fist onto the counter of the timing stand, taking off his headset and slamming it on the counter.

Four cars, four crashes and an “Oh-for-Four” performance to start off the season.

Six weeks later, Andretti Autosport achieved redemption on the streets of Long Beach.

Kirkwood started on the pole and drove to his first career NTT IndyCar Series victory, leading 53 laps to win in his third IndyCar start for Andretti Autosport.

Grosjean was 0.9907 seconds behind as the runner-up in a 1-2 sweep for Andretti Autosport.

The team also claimed three of the top four positions as Herta took fourth, just behind Chip Ganassi Racing driver and NTT IndyCar Series points leader Marcus Ericsson.

When the 48th running of the most prestigious street race in North America had concluded, the lasting image was Andretti celebrating in Victory Lane.

“Those last 30 laps were very long, but that was awesome,” Andretti told NBC Sports just after the checkered flag waved. “Awesome.

“My God, we needed this so bad. Hopefully now, we are back on track. I’m so excited. Kyle Kirkwood is the real deal, but Romain also drove a very smart race. I couldn’t be happier.

“With Colton Herta finishing fourth, I’m extremely happy with that right now.”

For anyone who believes the NTT IndyCar Series is a battle between Team Penske and Chip Ganassi, Andretti Autosport proved they remain a powerful force after the impressive effort Sunday on the streets of Long Beach.

“Hopefully, we can sneak up on them now,” Andretti said.

Team owner Andretti calls the race strategy for Grosjean but is always able to celebrate when one of his drivers wins the race. Josh Freund is one of two IndyCar team managers at Andretti Autosport along with Paul “Ziggy” Harcus. Freund works on the No. 28 pit stand for Grosjean.

He took a big picture view of Grosjean’s second-place performance on Sunday and what that means for success in 2023.

“We just have to execute,” Freund told NBC Sports. “We want to go after race wins. We did that today, but we will keep working it and working on the championship.

“Long Beach is a special one and I couldn’t be happier to get a 1-2 finish out of this race. We’ve had great cars all year. We have to keep putting them together like this.

“It was a great day for Andretti Autosport.”

The week before the April 2 PPG 375 at Texas Motor Speedway, team owner Andretti and Chief Operating Officer Rob Edwards made the decision to take Colton Herta’s father and race strategist, Bryan, off his son’s timing stand and pair him with Kirkwood. Scott Harner would take over the race strategy role for Herta.

At Texas, nobody at Andretti Autosport wanted to talk about the move, giving the perception there were some hard feelings with the switch.

There was a method to the madness, though, as the Herta-Kirkwood combination paid off with a victory in just their second race together. The Harner-Colton Herta pairing also paid off with an impressive fourth place finish after Herta started the race seventh.

“It’s all driver,” Bryan Herta told NBC Sports after the race. “It’s an honor and a privilege to be on the 27 team with these guys. To be part of Kyle Kirkwood’s first pole and now Kyle Kirkwood’s first win, those are really special moments in any driver’s career, and I feel honored to be part of that with him.

“Kyle did a great job today. I’m happy to be part of this team and do the best job I can for them. It was a great team result – 1-2-4, competitive cars all weekend. I’m really happy with that.”

“This is what we talked about; this is what we need to do as a team if we want to say we are one of the big three teams. This is the type of thing we need to do if we are going to prove that.”

Edwards was a key believer in making the switch in race strategist. Sunday at Long Beach, the team proved his point.

“It’s a great team effort,” Edwards said. “We looked at some things after St. Pete and came here and needed to make things right,” Edwards told NBC Sports. “I’m very happy for everyone. We had reasons we made the switch that we did and hopefully this is the start of getting on roll.”

Colton Herta was happy, not only for his fourth-place finish, but to see his teammate get his first career IndyCar victory.

“We were all similar pace in that race,” Herta told NBC Sports. “Congrats to Kyle on his first win, that’s really cool, and Romain for the podium. I wish I could have moved up one more spot to get a full Andretti podium. That would have been the second full Andretti sweep for me. The first one was 2020.

“It was a good day for me. I made up some places and got the car better than yesterday, so I’m happy with it.

“This definitely gives you confidence. We’re happy where we are with the cars. I’ve been talking the cars up all during the offseason. Hopefully, this shows a little insight into what we can do. We need more consistency, but I’m happy with it.”

He also said his relationship with Harner is good and “everyone is on the same page.” That momentum and chemistry is important, especially as the month of May approaches at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

That confidence can give the team a big boost at the most important time of the season in the NTT IndyCar Series.

“This shows it’s an incredible effort from everybody,” Herta said.

Over in Victory Lane, Grosjean celebrated his podium finish with the winner and third-place Ericsson. He told NBC Sports that in the closing laps when he was narrowing the gap to Kirkwood, he wasn’t going to push the issue.

“I decided to play it safe because there was no point in throwing away what would be a great finish for the team,” Grosjean told NBC Sports. “We had to pit early and didn’t have enough fuel in the tank for the last few laps, so I couldn’t use my push-to-pass.

“But Kyle drove a champion’s race. He didn’t make any mistakes. I didn’t want to take any risk and finishing 1-2 was better than making a mistake that could have taken us both out.”

That attitude impressed his team owner, who orchestrates the race on Grosjean’s pit stand.

“Romain drove really well and was a team driver,” Michael Andretti said. “We did everything that we needed to do. Romain was smart enough to not push it and we didn’t need to tell him what to do.

“Kyle has won a lot of races in other series. I had all the confidence in the world that he was going to get it done today.”

As a youngster, Kirkwood said in Victory Lane that he always dreamed of winning the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach. It was extra special that his first career IndyCar victory came in the biggest street course race in North America, and the second biggest street race in the world behind Formula One’s Grand Prix of Monaco.

“I’ve always wanted to win here,” Kirkwood said. “Andretti Autosport, everyone on the No. 27 car, they crushed it.

“Andretti Autosport, and Honda together, we can go and win a lot of races. We made a big step. Hopefully, you will be seeing us four drivers in Victory Lane a lot more.

“We’re looking forward to the rest of the season. Michael Andretti got his first career win here and hopefully; I can emulate him.”

Long Beach will also be special to Michael Andretti because it is where he got his first and last IndyCar wins. But on Sunday, he saw his team bounce back from the first street race of the season, that ended in bitter disappointment and frustration.

“It’s huge, really huge,” Andretti said. “We needed this bad. We knew we had fast cars, but we had to get the job done and today we did.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500