Hard Times Soften As McLaughlin Wins St. Pete

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, February 28 2022

Scott McLaughlin won from the pole Sunday in the IndyCar season-opener. (Photo by Jake Galstad/LAT for Chevy Racing)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Native New Zealander Scott McLaughlin readily admits his rookie 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season with Team Penske totally “mucked” with his head.

A three-time Australian Supercars champion and winner of 56 races for team-owner Roger Penske over there, McLaughlin scored a single podium and finished 14th in the point standings after 16 open-wheel Stateside starts.

“It’s a mind game, man, and you’ve got to be on top of it,” McLaughlin said Sunday with great relief after conquering the Streets of St. Pete. “You’ve got to just believe in yourself.”

Indeed, McLaughlin delivered on the promise he showed to Team Penske when it promoted him from touring cars to INDYCAR on Sunday, earning his first career victory in the 2022 season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

After securing his first series pole Saturday, McLaughlin wheeled his No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet to victory by 0.5095-seconds over reigning series champion Alex Palou of rival Chip Ganassi Racing. Palou, a native of Spain and rising superstar, applied steady pressure to McLaughlin over the closing laps in his No. 10 Ganassi Honda as they raced through slower traffic on the 1.8-mile/14-turn temporary circuit in Florida.

Recall that McLaughlin made his Series debut at this event in 2020 amid much hype after winning those three consecutive Supercars titles, and completed his first full season of open-wheel competition in 2021. His best finish last season was second to fellow-New Zealander and six-time series champion Scott Dixon on May 1 in the first of two races on Texas Motor Speedway’s 1.5-mile oval.

And while McLaughlin went on to earn series Rookie of the Year honors, he admittedly was haunted by his mid-pack results and the emotional strain of not seeing his family since 2020 due to pandemic-related global travel restrictions.

Those emotions were evident as McLaughlin sat in front of his winning car in Victory Lane, celebrating with his family via videoconference on his phone. Scott, 28, has not been with his parents in-person since January 2020.

“Yeah, I came over (to the USA) three times,” McLaughlin said during his post-race presser. “I had won straight back-to-back championships, and I know I’m a rookie and I wasn’t kidding myself. But at the same time it’s hard to go from the mindset of, ‘OK, win every week and that’s all that matters, nothing less,’ to going, ‘Hey, I’d love a top-15.’ I don’t work like that. I’m a competitive bloke. I want to win. I want to get poles. I want to dominate races and not even worry about things.

“I did that for four years and then coming here and was basically _ it just mucks with your head. I put a lot of pressure on myself, like, ‘Why isn’t this happening? Why am I sucking in qualifying when I’m good? I’ve done that before, I’ve proved that.’

“Definitely some hard times. Speaking pretty candid, it’s just how it is. As a professional sportsman you go through highs and lows. You’re getting paid good money and you’re running 15th _ it’s not good. For me, it’s not good. I drive for the biggest motorsport team in the world. For me it wasn’t good.

“But I feel like today, this weekend, we proved that hard work, perseverance, you can get there, and I felt very proud of that.”

After thanking team and series-owner Penske, Team President Tim Cindric, wife Karly and his rollcall of sponsors, McLaughlin added, “I miss my mom and dad dearly and my family. My mom and dad, they’re the ones that got me here and made me believe in myself. My mom and dad have been infatuated with the USA for many years, and I guess that put the love of the USA and the want to come over here to the big leagues when I was a young kid, even way before my Supercars success.

“Yeah, we had a good chat. Mom and dad were crying. My dad had his PPG shirt on. He’s like, ‘That’s all I got; I don’t have a DEX shirt.’ I’m like, ‘It’ll come. I’ll send it to you soon. It’ll get there in six months.’

“Yeah, it’s tremendous. I can’t wait, man. They’re going to come over in May. They haven’t seen me in INDYCAR at all, ever. They’ve only seen me on TV and the onboard videos I send back. Mom can’t watch. Mom always has a wine and dad just sits there and yells at the TV.”

Will Power finished third in the No. 12 Team Penske Chevrolet, 2.461-seconds behind his winning teammate. Colton Herta, the 2021 event winner, finished fourth in the No. 26 Honda fielded by Andretti Autosport, while Frenchman Romain Grosjean rounded out the top five in his first start for team-owner Michael Andretti in the No. 28 Honda.

McLaughlin became the second consecutive driver to earn his first series victory in the season opener. The driver who pulled off that feat last year _Palou, at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala. _ stretched McLaughlin to his limit over the final 13 laps of the 100-lapper.

An intriguing duel between drivers on two-pit stop and three-stop strategies unfolded into a straight fight between McLaughlin and Palou _ both on two-stop plans _ after Dixon made his third and final pit stop in the No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda on Lap 80, surrendering the lead to McLaughlin.

McLaughlin led Palou by 2.150-seconds when Dixon pitted. It appeared only a caution period would bunch the field, as McLaughlin controlled the pace from the front. But that caution never flew, as the race featured an event low of just one yellow-flag period.

With 13 laps remaining, McLaughlin approached the No. 48 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda of Jimmie Johnson, who was fighting to stay on the lead lap. McLaughlin had to find a spot on the concrete barrier-lined circuit to pass the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion and that slight delay helped Palou _ Johnson’s Ganassi teammate _ close to within 0.625-seconds.

From there, the gap between the two lead cars ranged from three-tenths to eight-tenths of a second. It appeared on Lap 96 that Palou might get a chance to pass McLaughlin as both cars approached the No. 11 AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet of rookie Tatiana Calderon. But Calderon pulled off the racing line on the front straight to let both McLaughlin and Palou scream past.

“Oh, man, it was crazy,” McLaughlin said of Palou’s pressure. “Really struggled those last couple laps just to keep my head and then save the fuel and all that sort of stuff. But we did it. Chevy gave us the fuel mileage. Drivability this weekend has been a change, and to win at DEX Imaging’s home race is unreal. Oh, my God, I’m just _ love you Australia, New Zealand, miss you guys.”

Palou continued to close on Laps 98 and 99 but couldn’t manage a pass. Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport rookie Devlin DeFrancesco was directly in front of the pair on the final lap, trying to stay on the lead lap. McLaughlin, who along with Palou was saving Push to Pass power until the final lap to conserve fuel, never let Palou challenge over the last trip around the circuit.

“It was close,” Palou said. “It was really, really close, but I don’t think we had the pace he had today. Like he was on rails, and he knew where to go fast and where to obviously save some fuel at the end. I was just there trying to make some pressure so hopefully he made a mistake or anything, but no, he was all-good.

“Congrats to him. I’m super-happy that he got his first win. Yeah, I’m happier that we got our first podium of the year.”

McLaughlin led 49 of 100 laps to earn the victory in his 18th career series start and first with veteran engineer Ben Bretzman. It also was the 223rd INDYCAR victory for Team Penske. McLaughlin is the 295th different driver to win a race in the series. Additionally, Chevrolet scored its 96th victory since its return to the series in 2012.

For the record, Palou parlayed his first career win last year in the season-opener at Barber into his first Astor Challenge Cup. And the winner of the season-opener in the last three  Series seasons has gone on to win the title in the same year _ Palou in 2021, Dixon in 2020 and Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden in 2019.

Next up on the 17-race schedule is the XPEL 375 at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth on Sunday, March 20. Live coverage will start at 12:30 p.m. (ET) on NBC and the INDYCAR Radio Network.

McLaughlin said he will approach the only oval race scheduled before the 106th running of the Indianapolis 500 in May with a business-as-usual approach. “Yeah, thankful that we’re going to have a test day before then, too, at Texas (on March 7). We’ll be able to fine-tune some things before we go there. We’re going to have a little bit of a different downforce package from INDYCAR, as well, so it will be interesting.

“Yeah, I’m fully-prepped. If I’m not on the pole I’m going to start 20th, and I don’t want that to happen, so I’m going to work hard. It’s business as usual. It’s the first race; I’m not getting ahead of myself. It’s just head down, bum up, and make it happen.”


Results of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding NTT IndyCar Series event on the 1.8-mile/14-turn Streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., with order of finish, starting position in parentheses, driver, engine, laps completed and reason out (if any):

  1. (1) Scott McLaughlin, Chevrolet, 100, Running
    2. (10) Alex Palou, Honda, 100, Running
    3. (2) Will Power, Chevrolet, 100, Running
    4. (3) Colton Herta, Honda, 100, Running
    5. (5) Romain Grosjean, Honda, 100, Running
    6. (4) Rinus VeeKay, Chevrolet, 100, Running
    7. (11) Graham Rahal, Honda, 100, Running
    8. (7) Scott Dixon, Honda, 100, Running
    9. (8) Marcus Ericsson, Honda, 100, Running
    10. (22) Takuma Sato, Honda, 100, Running
    11. (15) Christian Lundgaard, Honda, 100, Running
    12. (16) Pato O’Ward, Chevrolet, 100, Running
    13. (23) Jack Harvey, Honda, 100, Running
    14. (17) Helio Castroneves, Honda, 100, Running
    15. (6) Simon Pagenaud, Honda, 100, Running
    16. (9) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 100, Running
    17. (21) Felix Rosenqvist, Chevrolet, 100, Running
    18. (12) Kyle Kirkwood, Chevrolet, 100, Running
    19. (19) Callum Ilott, Chevrolet, 100, Running
    20. (13) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 100, Running
    21. (20) Conor Daly, Chevrolet, 100, Running
    22. (18) Devlin DeFrancesco, Honda, 100, Running
    23. (26) Jimmie Johnson, Honda, 99, Running
    24. (25) Tatiana Calderon, Chevrolet, 97, Running
    25. (14) Dalton Kellett, Chevrolet, 62, Mechanical
    26. (24) David Malukas, Honda, 23, Contact

Race Statistics
Winner’s average speed: 96.899 mph
Time of Race: 1:51:27.3466
Margin of victory: 0.5095-seconds
Cautions: 1 for 8 laps
Lead changes: 8 among 6 drivers

Lap Leaders:
McLaughlin 1-26
Rossi 27-36
Dixon 37-48
VeeKay 49-61
McLaughlin 62-63
Palou 64
Power 65
Dixon 66-79
McLaughlin 80-100

Point standings (top-10): 1, Scott McLaughlin, Team Penske, 54; 2, Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing, 41; 3, Will Power, Team Penske, 36; 4, Colton Herta, Andretti Autosport, 32; 5, Romain Grosjean, Andretti Autosport, 30; 6, Rinus VeeKay, Ed Carpenter Racing, 29; 7, Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, 26; 8, Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing, 25; 9, Marcus Ericsson, Chip Ganassi Racing, 22; 10, Takuma Sato, Dale Coyne Racing with RWR, 20.

(Editor’s Note: John Sturbin is a Texas-based journalist specializing in motorsports. During a near 30-year career with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he won the Bloys Britt Award for top motorsports story of the year (1991) as judged by The Associated Press; received the National Hot Rod Association’s Media Award (1997) and several in-house Star-Telegram honors. He also was inaugural recipient of the Texas Motor Speedway Excellence in Journalism Award (2009). His list of freelance clients has included Texas Motor Speedway, the Dallas Morning News, New York Newsday, Rome (N.Y) Daily Sentinel, Corpus Christi (Texas) Caller Times, NASCAR Wire Service and Ford Racing).


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, February 28 2022
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