The team struggled in qualifying, with Dalton Kellett, Kirkwood and JR Hildebrand only 22nd, 23rd and 26th on the speed charts. However, in second practice Kirkwood was 15th with his race setup, and overnight the team made further progress.
When the first caution period occurred on Lap 12, reigning Indy Lights champion Kirkwood was running 21st so the team elected to pit him, and his progress from the Lap 16 restart was spectacular. Despite this being Kirkwood’s first race on a 1.5-mile oval, he took full advantage of his 10-lap fresher tires, and sliced forward. He passed nine cars in three laps, and by Lap 28 he was ninth, having got around Ganassi’s Marcus Ericsson and Penske’s Josef Newgarden, the pair of whom would go on to finish third and first respectively.
Kirkwood even led five laps, albeit off-strategy, but his second stop was costly, as he slid slightly long through his pitbox. He resumed 17th and was up to 14th when he tried to pass former Indy Lights teammate Devlin DeFrancesco. When the latter’s Andretti Autosport-Honda moved up slightly from its trajectory entering Turn 4, Kirkwood adjusted his line in response, getting further onto the less grippy track surface. That, combined with running in the dirty air of Graham Rahal who was running the same high line to get around Helio Castroneves, was enough to send the Foyt-Chevy out of control and into the wall.
“Unfortunately, we ended our race a bit too early,” said Kirkwood. “Making some passes happen, we came through the field at one point from the mid-20s up to the top 10, we were actually leading for a few laps off strategy.
“So super-happy with the team, the #14 car was just amazing.
“Unfortunately, we got caught out by some of the sealer at the top of the track. I was racing hard with Devlin on a restart, and I just ran out of track because when you get into that PJ1, the car just sets sailing and that really caught us out today.
“Super-unfortunate but super-happy with our performance. Everyone knew we were here, we were contenders at this race and we’ll just carry that momentum – not from us crashing! – but the momentum from how well our pace was into Long Beach.”
Hildebrand, who races the other ROKiT car on ovals this year, looked set for 12th until a front-wing problem caused him to lose pace in the closing stages and he clocked a 14th-place finish.
“It was just kind of a fight back day for us,” said the 34-year-old Californian. “We didn’t qualify well, but figured out what we were battling with the car after the final practice session; there was a little bit of an inconsistency with the setups with the way the car was put together.
“[In the race] the car felt pretty good, it felt racy, we were able to make it go really long on fuel and the car was underneath me for all of this. Beyond that we were trying to be opportunistic, make moves where we could, and outlast guys… We managed to do that and came away with a pretty solid finish given where we started.”
Kellett made seven pit stops in the team’s K-Line Insulators USA entry trying to open up the pit windows, but it didn’t pay off and he came home 17th.