ST. PETERSBURG — After winning three championships and 48 races in Australian Supercars, Scott McLaughlin was used to success at Team Penske. And that made last year a struggle.
In his first full IndyCar Series season, McLaughlin never qualified higher than fifth and only finished on the podium once.
“I don’t work like that,” McLaughlin said. “I’m a competitive bloke.”
The 28-year-old New Zealand native is a victorious bloke again after leading 49 of the 100 laps to win Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg from the pole. McLaughlin held off reigning series champion Alex Palou by half a second and beat teammate Will Power to earn his first career IndyCar victory. It was the 11th Grand Prix triumph for Team Penske, and perhaps the most surprising.
McLaughlin entered the weekend gunning for a top-seven finish. That doesn’t sound great for a driver on one of the biggest teams in motorsports, but it was a step up from last year, where he spent much of the season hoping to end in the top 15 as he adjusted to a new series on a new continent. He understood the rookie learning curve, but that doesn’t mean it was easy.
“It just mucks with your head,” McLaughlin said.
Something changed for McLaughlin and his team this weekend at this photogenic 1.8-mile, 14-turn street course.
McLaughlin and his No. 3 Chevrolet clicked Saturday when he won his first pole in the series. It was a major improvement from last year, where he only advanced to the final round of qualifying once. McLaughlin said he eased the pressure on himself. Success followed.
He still seemed relaxed when he led the 26-car field into the first turn, in front of what appeared to be the largest crowd in the event’s 19-year history.
“I felt like last year really led me up to this moment,” McLaughlin said.
His rookie season taught him how to handle the intricacies of IndyCar — how new tires handle, how to maximize laps in and out of the pits, how to utilize the push-to-pass boosts.
His team learned, too, after an uncharacteristically rough year. Series runner-up Josef Newgarden was the only Penske driver to finish in the top seven in points, and Simon Pagenaud was the only one to finish in the top 11 at the Indianapolis 500.
“There’s been a lot of reflection and development to try and understand what that was,” Power said, “and (we) definitely have turned up with better cars. There’s no question.”
Sunday was proof of that, beyond the fact that two Penske drivers finished on the podium. McLaughlin looked untouchable early, leading the first 26 laps before pitting. His crew did well on stops, too, and came up with a winning strategy during the two-stop race.
But a fast car and right game plan only work if the driver can execute. McLaughlin did.
After inheriting the lead on lap 80, McLaughlin needed to hit a certain fuel number to ensure he wouldn’t run out of gas. He also had to make sure he didn’t get passed by Palou.
“That’s everything we practiced in in the simulator — like thousands and thousands of laps on the simulator, just getting ready for that moment …” McLaughlin said. “I knew exactly what I had and what I needed to do. Yeah, it’s a good feeling when you can control a race like that.”
Palou kept his No. 10 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda close enough to make things interesting in the final laps, especially as McLaughlin approached drivers at the back of the pack. Power’s No. 12 Chevrolet charged, too. But the best Palou and Power could do was put pressure on McLaughlin and hope to force him into a mistake.
“It was really, really close,” Palou said, “but I don’t think we had the pace he had (Sunday).”
That’s a testament to Penske’s improvement and its consistent success here. But it’s also a compliment to McLaughlin’s growth and innate talent.
McLaughlin did, however, make one literal misstep. As he climbed out of his cockpit, he jumped and spun in celebration … except his legs felt like jelly from the grueling race. He fell and rolled onto his back.
“I looked like a wombat, man,” McLaughlin said.
But a victorious one, once again.