Indiana Daily Student

COLUMN: McLaughlin joins IndyCar’s top contenders with win at St. Petersburg

<p>Team Penske IndyCar driver Scott McLaughlin celebrates after winning the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Feb. 27, 2022, in St. Petersburg, Florida. It was McLaughlin&#x27;s first win in the NTT IndyCar Series and required holding off defending series champion Alex Palou.</p>

Team Penske IndyCar driver Scott McLaughlin celebrates after winning the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Feb. 27, 2022, in St. Petersburg, Florida. It was McLaughlin's first win in the NTT IndyCar Series and required holding off defending series champion Alex Palou.

In 2020, New Zealand’s Scott McLaughlin won his third-straight championship for DJR Team Penske in the Australian Supercars series. He felt he needed a change of pace, though, and left to join Team Penske’s IndyCar team for the 2021 season.

Nothing seemed to gel for McLaughlin on the track, and though the 28-year old showed moments of speed in his rookie IndyCar season, he only finished on the podium once.

Now, in his second season, McLaughlin has already had the best possible start a driver can have. He’s already shown signs of becoming one of the biggest surprises of the NTT IndyCar Series this season.

McLaughlin won Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg after grabbing pole position during qualifying, and his performance this weekend could set the stage for an impressive individual season ahead.

McLaughlin, known as “The Kiwi,” pulled away from the start, taking his No. 3 Dex Imaging Team Penske Chevrolet far enough ahead of the pack to avoid dropping out of first place. Despite a caution in the middle of the race and an ensuing battle of pit strategy that lasted right to the finish line, McLaughlin’s race remained unaffected.

As the race reached its closing stages, a duel between McLaughlin and defending series champion Alex Palou would ultimately decide the winner. Palou’s No. 10 NTT Chip Ganassi Honda chased down McLaughlin through the final 15 laps as McLaughlin was slowed down by lapped cars.

Palou’s teammate Jimmie Johnson did a particularly strong job holding up McLaughlin and drawing Palou closer before he conceded to the leaders and let them safely pass.

With around five laps to go, rookie Delvin DeFrancesco stayed committed to holding up both McLaughlin and Palou for as long as he could. This was no easy feat for DeFrancesco, though, as his car wiggled and struggled to apply power out of corners of the tight street circuit right in front of McLaughlin.

McLaughlin didn’t get around DeFrancesco by the race’s end, but he didn’t need to. Palou may have been faster, but the former series champion didn’t take any unnecessary risks like he had in the past. Rather, Palou kept his eyes set on the bigger prize rather than jeopardizing both his and McLaughlin’s championship hopes in the first race of the 2022 season.

Related: [IndyCar Series preview, part 3: Juncos, Meyer Shank, Rahal and Team Penske]

That said, McLaughlin’s win was well deserved. He drove a great race on Sunday, never put himself or his team in a perilous position and refused to give Palou any easy chances to steal the win away.

Even on Saturday, McLaughlin posted a 108.948 mph qualifying lap that defeated teammate Will Power’s time for first place. Power has the second most pole positions in series history with 63, only four behind Mario Andretti. Defeating him in the final round is tough, and McLaughlin accomplished it.

McLaughlin’s win was reminiscent of Palou’s maiden victory last season. Palou won the first race of the season, and used that to kickstart his championship drive. McLaughlin has the equipment and the team to do the same, and if he can consistently compete as he did this weekend he’ll be a factor on the season’s final weekend at Laguna Seca.

Team Penske IndyCar driver Scott McLaughlin celebrates after winning the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Feb. 27, 2022, in St. Petersburg, Florida. McLaughlin’s next chance to keep his strong start to the 2022 season going will come at the XPEL 375 race at the Texas Motor Speedway on March 19-20. Courtesy Photo

Sunday was a special day for McLaughlin, but bittersweet at best. On Saturday, McLaughlin said he hadn’t seen his family in two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic while he pursued his dream of racing in America. On Sunday, after his first win stateside, he became emotional in victory lane talking about his parents.

“I miss my mom and dad dearly and my family,” McLaughlin said. “Wish you guys were here. What a day.”

He wasn’t too sad with the weekend’s results, though. His celebration in victory lane — leaping from his car, falling onto his back only to jump back into the scrum of the team celebration, then later, channeling Australian Formula One driver Daniel Riccardo by drinking champagne from his racing shoe — may very well go down in IndyCar history.

This win is a sign of McLaughlin’s arrival in the top tier of the series. The Firestone Grand Prix is IndyCar’s longest street circuit race. It takes place in the hot and humid Florida sun and, as the first race of the season, comes when many drivers aren’t quite race fit, or in some cases haven’t sat in a race car since September.

Despite all of the excuses he could’ve made and a direct challenge from the defending series champion, McLaughlin pulled off a perfect weekend. If he can keep it up, he might just add his name to the Astor Cup.

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