IndyCar: McLaughlin wins GP of St. Petersburg from pole

Polesitter Scott McLaughlin led early, kept his cool when he was stuck in traffic, then held off defending series champion Alex Palou (Ganassi Honda) under heavy pressure, to win his first IndyCar race – the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

McLaughlin from New Zealand came to the USA as a multi-year champion in the Supercars Series, learned a lot in his rookie IndyCar season last year, and then came out of the box this year and won straight out.

McLaughlin won by just 0.5 seconds over Palou. Palou pressured McLaughlin hard for many laps, but the Kiwi kept his composure and never put a wheel wrong all day.

Alex Palou. Photo by Penske Entertainment: Chris Owens

“I’m exhausted,” McLaughlin told NBC Sports’ Marty Snider. “What a day. I’m out of breath here. It was crazy. I really struggled the last couple of laps to keep my head and save the fuel, but we did it. It’s unreal. Love you in Australia and New Zealand and miss you guys.”

McLaughlin’s Penske Chevy teammate Will Power took the final podium position in 3rd. It was the 11th time Team Penske has won this race.

Will Power. Photo by Penske Entertainment: James Black. “Yeah it (the early yellow) really hurt us badly. We were banking on being able to go long in that first stint and then pretty sure we would’ve got to the lead just because the reds drop so much. Then tried to short pit that middle stint, but unfortunately, we got the yellow. And I just was really trying to make the reds last. I was really happy with third. I think the Verizon Chevy crew did a phenomenal job with strategy to get us out of that situation and just a good solid day.”

“First of all, Scott [McLaughlin, race winner] did an amazing job. Congratulations to him on his first win,” said Palou.

“Super happy with the #10 NTT Data Honda car, it was really good today. If you look at how the result we got today, compared to how [poorly] we started the weekend, I think the entire Chip Ganassi team did an incredible job in coming back and scoring our first podium [finish] of the year. We came up a little short there at the end, but we were close, we were very close. If this is one of our worst races this year, I will be really, really pleased.”

Colton Herta (Andretti Honda) and Romain Grosjean (Andretti Honda) rounded out the top-5.

Herta, the defending Grand Prix winner, spent much of his day in the top five but never challenged for the win. He had to pit earlier than some of the other contenders after the crew of his No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda didn’t get his tank full during a stop. He finished fourth.

That caution, caused by rookie David Malukas hitting the wall in Turn 3, was a lucky break for McLaughlin. His Team Penske teammate, Will Power, had been charging toward the front. Power used the primary black tires — which are slower at first but more durable than the red alternate tires McLaughlin started with. That allowed Power to cut a second away from McLaughlin’s lead every lap until that yellow flag. Power finished third.

For the first half of the race, the only lead changes happened thanks to pit stops. Alexander Rossi only led because he did not stop, and had to give way to six-time series champion Scott Dixon and then Rinus VeeKay.

McLaughlin took the lead for good on lap 80, after Dixon pitted from the lead. He held off a late charge from Palou to earn the 11th Grand Prix victory for Team Penske.

McLaughlin led a race high 49 of 100 laps around the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street course in front of the largest crowd in the history of this event.

Alex Palou parlayed his first career win last year in the season opener at Barber Motorsports Park into his first Astor Challenge Cup for Chip Ganassi Racing. And the winner of the season opener in the last three NTT INDYCAR SERIES seasons has gone on to win the title in the same year.  Can McLaughlin keep the streak going?

McLaughlin finished 14th in the standings, with a best finish of second, and earned series Rookie of the Year honors in 2021 despite the strain of not seeing his family since 2020 due to pandemic-related global travel restrictions. McLaughlin sat in front of his winning car in Victory Lane, celebrating with his family via videoconference on his phone.

“Thank you to Roger Penske, everyone,” McLaughlin said. “Yeah, DEX Imaging jumping on board, trusting me, and then Roger Penske and Tim Cindric giving me the opportunity to come here.

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

Josef Newgarden started ninth and finished 16th in a frustrating INDYCAR SERIES season-opener on the Streets of St. Pete on Sunday afternoon.  Electing to go with a three-stop strategy, different than most of the field’s two-stop plans, Newgarden seemed to be fighting from behind all afternoon long, trying to make up time on a busy racetrack where much of the field was evenly matched.  Newgarden’s No. 2 Hitachi Dallara/Chevrolet had pace, but was constantly stuck in traffic, which cost him time to the leaders and the eventual race winner.  Eventually, the two-time series champion had to settle for a disappointing 16th place finish.

“It was a tough weekend on the No. 2 car. It just didn’t pan out our way. We tried a different strategy than most, and it didn’t seem like the racing gods were shining on us this weekend. There are a lot of positives. We have a lot of new people on the 2 car and I felt like everyone worked super-well together. We’ve learned some things to start this year off, so our goal is to continue to build on this first weekend of the year and get better throughout. I can’t wait for the next one at Texas.”

Winner’s Quotes

SCOTT MCLAUGHLIN, NO. 3 DEX IMAGING CHEVROLET, TEAM PENSKE – RACE WINNER: “This unbelievable. Thank you to Roger Penske and everyone who put their faith in me… DEX Energy for jumping on board and trusting me, and Roger Penske and Tim Cindric giving me the opportunity to come here. I miss my mom and dad dearly and my family… I wish you guys were here.

LATE-RACE FIGHT WITH ALEX PALOU: “It was crazy. I really struggled those last couple laps to keep my head to save fuel and all that stuff. We did it. Chevy gave us the fuel mileage. The drivability this weekend has been a big change. To win DEX Imaging’s home race is unreal. I love you Australia and New Zealand. I miss you guys and thinking of all you guys in the Queensland with all the floods at the moment. I just can’t believe this!”

MORE ON THE RACE: “These are great fans. We have great sponsors like DEX Imaging and Chevy to help us along the way. The trust of everyone in me really kept me going, including my wife. My wife has been the absolute backbone of everything and kept the belief in me. She’s a gem.”

YOUR PREVIOUS BEST RESULT ON A STREET COURSE WAS 11TTTH. WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE FROM ONE YEAR TO THE NEXT? “I was worried about my average so I had to come out and win! I’m just very proud. We put a lot of hard work in – not just me but all these guys on pit stop practice, engineering from Ben (Bretzman) to make me good to give me a car that I like. I’m just pleased.”

WHAT HAS ROGER PENSKE’S SUPPORT MEAN? “He was the one who calmed me down last year. He’s the one who said that it’s a long story and not a short one. To pay back that faith and prove the trust he put in me is a very proud moment.”

YOU WON SO MUCH IN SUPERCARS BUT DIDN’T LAST YEAR. WAS THERE DOUBT? “There’s always a little bit of doubt. But you know you can do it deep down. Everyone was asking how I was going to go at the start today, and I was like, ‘I’ve led a few races from the start. I just didn’t do rolling starts.’ It’s all about going back to what I know. I knew I could do it. It’s all about belief. To anyone out there, you can do whatever you want. You just have to have belief in yourself and get it done.”

Race Results

Pos No Name Laps Behind Gap Led ST Engine Points Team
1 3 Scott McLaughlin 100 0.000s 0.000s 49 1 Chevy 54 Team Penske
2 10 Alex Palou 100 0.5095 0.5095 1 10 Honda 41 Chip Ganassi Racing
3 12 Will Power 100 2.4671 1.9576 1 2 Chevy 36 Team Penske
4 26 Colton Herta 100 15.8442 13.3771  0 3 Honda 32 Andretti Autosport
5 28 Romain Grosjean 100 18.4525 2.6083  0 5 Honda 30 Andretti Autosport
6 21 Rinus VeeKay 100 20.6514 2.1989 13 4 Chevy 29 Ed Carpenter Racing
7 15 Graham Rahal 100 21.4181 0.7667  0 11 Honda 26 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing
8 9 Scott Dixon 100 22.0277 0.6096 26 7 Honda 25 Chip Ganassi Racing
9 8 Marcus Ericsson 100 22.3674 0.3397  0 8 Honda 22 Chip Ganassi Racing
10 51 Takuma Sato 100 23.2743 0.9069  0 22 Honda 20 Dale Coyne Racing w/RWR
11 30 Christian Lundgaard 100 24.4244 1.1501  0 15 Honda 19 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing
12 5 Pato O’Ward 100 26.2750 1.8506  0 16 Chevy 18 Arrow McLaren SP
13 45 Jack Harvey 100 31.6687 5.3937  0 23 Honda 17 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing
14 06 Helio Castroneves 100 33.5985 1.9298  0 17 Honda 16 Meyer Shank Racing
15 60 Simon Pagenaud 100 34.2147 0.6162  0 6 Honda 15 Meyer Shank Racing
16 2 Josef Newgarden 100 36.2603 2.0456  0 9 Chevy 14 Team Penske
17 7 Felix Rosenqvist 100 39.0361 2.7758  0 21 Chevy 13 Arrow McLaren SP
18 14 Kyle Kirkwood 100 58.1240 19.0879  0 12 Chevy 12 AJ Foyt Enterprises
19 77 Callum Ilott 100 58.7223 0.5983  0 19 Chevy 11 Juncos Hollinger Racing
20 27 Alexander Rossi 100 59.1634 0.4411 10 13 Honda 11 Andretti Autosport
21 20 Conor Daly 100 60.1358 0.9724  0 20 Chevy 9 Ed Carpenter Racing
22 29 Devlin DeFrancesco 99 1 LAPS 3.1173  0 18 Honda 8 Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport
23 48 Jimmie Johnson 99 1 LAPS 13.9025  0 26 Honda 7 Chip Ganassi Racing
24 11 Tatiana Calderon 97 3 LAPS 1 LAPS  0 25 Chevy 6 AJ Foyt Enterprises
25 4 Dalton Kellett 62 Mechanical 13 LAPS  0 14 Chevy 5 AJ Foyt Enterprises
26 18 David Malukas 23 Contact 19.6229  0 24 Honda 5 Dale Coyne Racing with HMD

Race Statistics
Winner’s average speed: 96.899 mph
Time of Race: 1:51:27.3466
Margin of victory: 0.5095 of a second
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

NTT INDYCAR SERIES point standings: McLaughlin 54, Palou 41, Power 36, Herta 32, Grosjean 30, VeeKay 29, Rahal 26, Dixon 25, Ericsson 22, Sato 20.