Scott McLaughlin’s race-winning performance in last weekend’s Children’s of Alabama Indy Grand Prix at Barber Motorsports Park might have sent an ominous message to his NTT INDYCAR SERIES competitors.
“(That was) probably the most complete race I’ve ever driven in INDYCAR,” the 29-year-old New Zealander said.
Now consider that the three-time Australian Supercars champion driving for Team Penske has only made 38 starts in this series, and he has already won four races with at least two more that have slipped away – he lost the lead at Texas Motor Speedway last year in the final corner of the race and he crashed out while dueling for the lead late this year in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. He also has won three NTT P1 Awards for being the fastest in qualifying, has totaled nine top-three finishes in races and has already led 500 laps in two-plus seasons.
If McLaughlin is now rounding into veteran form … look out.
McLaughlin’s victory list includes a street race (St. Petersburg 2022) and three road courses (Mid-Ohio 2022, Portland 2022 and Barber 2023), and he had last year’s race on the Texas oval nearly in hand after leading 186 laps before Josef Newgarden slipped past in the final 100 yards. If Team Penske regains its oval form at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, McLaughlin will have a strong chance to win either the GMR Grand Prix (Saturday, May 13) or the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge (Sunday, May 28). Fact is, he could win both.
“A perfect way to kick off what is going to be a massive month,” he said after winning at Barber Motorsports Park.
It wasn’t just that McLaughlin won that race, it’s how he did it. Despite starting fourth, he quickly dropped from the likely-to-win conversation because his team chose the less-desirable three-stop fuel strategy. Following the first stop at Lap 15, the No. 3 Good Ranchers Team Penske Chevrolet was 19th in a 27-car field and mired in traffic.
The climb out of the hole was a testament to McLaughlin’s masterful mix of patience and aggression. In a nine-lap stretch beginning on Lap 23, he passed at least one car per lap and twice got more than that. By Lap 31, he was shadowing Newgarden, who had become the race leader through the pit cycles.
McLaughlin said he was proud of the way he was “picking people off.”
“It was getting pretty tough in the middle (of the race) when we were making passes, (dealing with) lapped traffic, whatnot,” he said.
McLaughlin got the lead for the first time on Lap 39 when Newgarden pitted, and that set up the duel with Andretti Autosport’s Romain Grosjean the rest of the way. One or the other led all but three laps thereafter, with Will Power only taking command during the exchange of pit stops.
McLaughlin and Grosjean twice swiped the top spot, the first time when Grosjean muscled past in Turn 17 as McLaughlin came out of the pits on cold tires on Lap 64. Finally, on Lap 72, McLaughlin capitalized on Grosjean slipping wide in Turn 5, and he was never headed. Their separation at the checkered flags was 1.7854 seconds.
There was a lot of attention on Power’s late charge in the race, but McLaughlin felt he was in such command that he never gave Power, who finished nearly 3.3 seconds behind, a second thought. That’s another reflection of how strong McLaughlin feels his program is at this point in the season.
“No, no, no,” he said of any concern from either Grosjean or Power. “I was full in control.
“Honestly, I felt like the car was so good, I was just hitting my (fuel conservation) number, (doing) what I needed to do. I knew if Power got (close) to me, I had the pace and the fuel on hand to push ‘til the end.”
The win moved McLaughlin to fourth in the crowded standings, and he is only 11 points behind Marcus Ericsson’s pace-setting total. Thirteen races remain, beginning with the two very important ones this month at IMS. McLaughlin finished fourth in the Gallagher Grand Prix last July 30.
McLaughlin won 56 races over eight years in Australia’s marquee series, including 31 of 56 in his final two seasons, but he knows championships come through a different formula here in the U.S. Thus, he has a different mindset, one that appears to be suiting him well in Year Three.
“It’s not about winning every race in this racing series,” he said. “It’s all about just being consistent in the championship. That’s exactly what our goal has sort of been since the start.”
The GMR Grand Prix opens with practice and qualifying on Friday, May 12. The 85-lap race will air at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday, May 13 on NBC, Peacock and the INDYCAR Radio Network.