Kyle Kirkwood celebrates his eighth Indy Lights win of 2021 with a young fan Photo credit: Gavin Baker Photography/Road to Indy

By Steve Wittich

How to turn a five-point championship deficit into an eight (nine) point lead in only 24 hours by Kyle Kirkwood is the title of the first chapter of the Indy Lights weekend at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.

Kirkwood, a champion in USF2000 and Indy Pro 2000, moved one race closer to becoming the first driver to win all three Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires scholarships with a dominating 24 hours that included two pole wins and the most effortless win this year. His words, not ours.

“We came into this weekend knowing we needed to be fast, and we are just that,” said Andretti Autosport, rookie to Georgia Henneberry, on the Peacock broadcast. “I was unsure of our race pace coming in, but we were even faster at the end than we were in the beginning.

“I can’t believe it. I have no words right now. It was probably the most effortless race that I’ve had all season. For it to happen this weekend is so crucial for our championship.

“I’m stoked. It’s awesome!!”

It’s the eighth win of the season for Kirkwood, giving him one more trip to the top step of the podium than his championship rival David Malukas. In addition, Kirkwood extends his Road To Indy leading wins total to 29.

The win is the first in Indy Lights at the iconic 2.238-mile, 11-turn road course for Andretti Autosport. The team now has 67 wins as an Indy Lights team.

Coming home second, after holding off an early charge from his championship-leading teammate David Malukas was Linus Lundqvist. The podium is the 22-year-olds ninth this season, 25th in his American Open Wheel career, and 70th across all junior open-wheel categories.

“We’re here to win, but on days you can’t win, it’s good to be second,” said the driver, who is third in the season-long points battle. “We have a bit of work overnight to try to catch Kyle, but tomorrow’s a new day. It’s a long way down into Turn One; hopefully, we can figure something out, but it’s good to have another shot at it. This track is one of the places we tested at, so it’s good to come back somewhere familiar. Huge thanks to the team, who has worked night and day to get the car we have. Hopefully, we can get one more spot tomorrow.”

Making it three podiums and five top-fives in the last five races was Lundqvist’s Global Racing Group w/HMD teammate Benjamin Pedersen, who stood on a podium for the fifth time during his rookie Indy Lights season.

“It was a really tricky race in terms of tire management, especially the rear tires once we hit the halfway point,” explained Pedersen after the 30-lap race. “I tried my best to pressure Linus, but it’s hard to stay close here. We’re happy with the result, sitting a strong fourth in the championship and our fifth straight (top-four). We’ll try to make the car better overnight, help the rears last longer, and see how I can make myself better for tomorrow.”

It gives the 22-year-old a more comfortable twenty-point gap to a trio of Andretti Autosport drivers whom he is battling for fourth in the championship.

For the fifth time in 2021, Kirkwood led the field to the green flag, with Lundqvist joining him on the front row.

Kirkwood got a slight jump, with Lundqvist also getting a decent jump. In the Utah Airguns/HPD/Global Racing Group/FX Airguns/ Paytrim/JULA, sponsored No. 26, Lundqvist was side-by-side with Kirkwood at the corner entry. But, by the apex of the Andretti Hairpin, he had fallen behind the No. 28, slotting in behind the leader.

A chaotic start to the first of two Indy Lights Grand Prix of Monterey Presented By Cooper Tires races at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca Photo credit: Gavin Baker Photography/Road to Indy

Malukas wisely let the two front-row starters fight for the top spot, easily holding back his teammate Pedersen and holding third.

Further back, the Telcel/Anahauc/WBC Store/Ambiental/MultiQuip No. 59 of Manuel Sulaiman went for a wild ride through the dirt at the exit of Turn 4 after making wheel-to-wheel contact with DeFrancesco in the right-hander.

The running order at the end of the first lap was Kirkwood, Lundqvist, Malukas, Benjamin Pedersen (Global Racing Group w/HMD), Danial Frost (Andretti Autosport), Rasmus Lindh (Juncos Hollinger Racing), Devlin DeFrancesco (Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport), Robert Megennis (Andretti Autosport), Sting Ray Robb (Juncos Hollinger Racing), Christian Bogle (Carlin) and Manuel Sulaiman (HMD Motorsports).

On Lap 2, Lindh, a winner at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in Indy Pro 2000, was able to get by Frost for the fifth spot.

After five laps of action, Kirkwood’s lead over Lundqvist was 2.19 seconds, meaning that push-to-pass was not available. Behind Lundqvist, his teammate Malukas was lapping a little quicker but could not get around the Swedish driver.

On Lap 6, Megennis came to pit road for repairs by the Andretti Autosport crew, with what Georgia Henneberry reported was a suspension issue.

On Lap 8, the points leader lost the rear of the HMD Trucking No. 79 at the apex of Turn 3 and went for a wild ride through the dirt. He kept his car pointed in the right direction but lost one spot to his teammate Pedersen.

Benjamin Pedersen leads David Malukas at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca Photo credit: Gavin Baker Photography/Road to Indy

After ten laps, Kirkwood’s lead over Lundqvist was 4.0 seconds. Lundqvist’s teammate Pedersen was within push-to-pass range of the No. 26. The running order behind the podium runners was Malukas, Lindh, Frost, DeFrancesco, Robb, Sulaiman, Bogle, and Megennis.

As Kirkwood began Lap 17, he had a 7.6 second lead over Lundqvist erased when the yellow flag came out for Bogle, who appeared to have a mechanical issue and dropped fluid on the track, coming to a stop in the gravel on the outside of Turn 2.

The running order under the yellow flag was Kirkwood, Lundqvist, Pedersen, Malukas, Lindh, Frost, DeFrancesco, Robb, Sulaiman, Bogle, and Megennis.

The AMR INDYCAR Safety Team got the car and fluid cleaned up, with the green flag coming with
nine laps remaining.

As the field exited the final corner, DeFrancesco and his teammate, Frost, were side-by-side, with the Dan-Jet sponsored No. 68 running wide and losing three spots, falling to ninth. Race control announced that move was under review, with DeFrancesco eventually being penalized five seconds.

At the front, Kirkwood got a significant jump, quickly pulling out of push-to-pass range and driving away from the Global Racing Group/HMD Motorsports trio.

Kirkwood was running laps almost a second quicker than Lundqvist, and with five laps remaining, had pulled to a 4.7-second lead.

Lundqvist had Pedersen within push-to-pass range in the fight for second. However, Pedersen had his teammate and championship leader Malukas within a half-second.

Over the last five laps, Kirkwood pulled out another two seconds, getting the checkered flag 6.6 seconds ahead of Lundqvist.

Malukas continued to put pressure on Pedersen but was not able to get around the Danish driver.

DeFrancesco was putting pressure on Lindh for fifth place but couldn’t get around the Juncos Hollinger Racing newcomer, meaning that the following three drivers were within the five seconds DeFrancesco was penalized, and he ended up finishing ninth.

Indy Lights Grand Prix of Monterey Presented By Cooper Tires Race #1 results

1 28 Kyle Kirkwood Andretti Autosport 30 LAPS
2 26 Linus Lundqvist Global Racing Group w/HMD Motorsports -6.6515
3 24 Benjamin Pedersen Global Racing Group w/HMD Motorsports -9.1243
4 79 David Malukas HMD Motorsports -9.7218
5 51 Rasmus Lindh Juncos Hollinger Racing -12.0328
6 2 Sting Ray Robb Juncos Hollinger Racing -14.3389
7 59 Manuel Sulaiman HMD Motorsports -15.4639
8 68 Danial Frost Andretti Autosport -16.5291
9 17 Devlin DeFrancesco Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport -17.4696
10 27 Robert Megennis Andretti Autosport -4 LAPS
11 7 Christian Bogle Carlin -14 LAPS

The final Indy Lights race of the weekend at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca will get the green flag at 9:45 am (PT) or 12:45 pm (PT).