ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Scott McLaughlin took the checkered flag in the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series season opener on the streets of St. Petersburg Sunday.
McLaughlin started on pole and executed a perfect strategy throughout the race, outdueling defending series champion Alex Palou in the closing laps.
“It was crazy,” McLaughlin said. “Really struggled those last couple laps and saving fuel, but we did it. This Chevy engine went the distance. I can’t believe it.”
This is McLaughlin’s second year as a full-time driver for Team Penske. It’s his first win in IndyCar but his 57th for Team Penske. McLaughlin won 56 races for Roger Penske in Australian Supercars before coming to IndyCar.
Palou was second and Will Power added to the success on the day for Team Penske with a third-place finish.
“He did an amazing job, Scott,” Palou said. “So happy for him. I think the team did an amazing job, coming back and scoring our first podium. Don’t think we had the pace to match Scott in the end.”
As usual, the strategy revolved around running which tires when. During practice leading up to the race, the red tires were faster, but the primary black tires proved more durable.
In spite of this, McLaughlin was able to make his red tires that he started on last for the first 25 laps while getting out to a big lead. But as that lead shrunk to second place teammate Will Power, the first caution came out with rookie driver David Malukas scraping the outside all.
It proved a huge break for McLaughlin who would have the benefit of pitting under caution. McLaughlin would cycle to 12th after the round of pitstops.
Through the middle of the race, McLaughlin found himself in a bunch of traffic with cars on different strategies. But going into the final stint, it came down to Rinus Veekay, McLaughlin, and Palou on who would pit faster and at the right time.
With 35 laps to go, Veekay was the first to bite from the lead with McLaughlin electing to stay out one lap longer to try and overcut Veekay for the de facto lead. It would work out for McLaughlin who cycled out ahead of Veekay. But, this also opened the door for Palou to do the same thing to McLaughlin. It would not pay off for Palou who cycled out in second behind McLaughlin.
McLaughlin, Palou, Veekay, and Power would be the four fighting for the race win, while also saving fuel and tires in the process. Navigating lap traffic, McLaughlin would hold off all three to take the win.
McLaughlin credits Roger Penske for helping him keep his faith in his decision to leave Australia two years ago and having a lackluster rookie year in IndyCar last season.
“He’s the one who calmed me down last year,” McLaughlin said. “There’s always a little bit of doubt, but it was always going back to what I know. I knew I could do it, just had to believe in myself.”
Colton Herta and Romain Grosjean would overtake Veekay in the final team laps to finish fourth and fifth respectively.
Among notable drivers who struggled in the race was Josef Newgarden, whose three-stop strategy was thwarted by the Malukas caution. Newgarden would finish 16th. Pato O’Ward also went with a three-stop strategy that went the same way as Newgarden’s. O’Ward was 12th. Both drivers were contenders for the series title last year.
The series will have nearly a month off now as the teams prepare their cars for oval racing in the Xpel 375 at Texas Motor Speedway Mar. 20.