ST. PETERSBURG, Fla — Scott McLaughlin wanted a second shot to see these NTT INDYCAR Series tracks. See, last year was the first time that the New Zealander had even seen all but one of these circuits on the calendar.
The one exception?
St. Pete. That was his series debut in the 2020 season finale here. Technically, the 1.8-mile street course is his third trip here. That third trip is showing that we should watch out for McLaughlin in 2023 when he sees everywhere else a third time.
McLaughlin, 28, topped the pole master and teammate, Will Power, to earn the pole for Sunday’s 2022 season opener. The Team Penske driver circled the 14-turn race track with a time of 59.4821-seconds under the bright blue Florida skies on a warm Saturday afternoon to score his first career pole in Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete (12 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network).
“It’s amazing,” a joyful McLaughlin said. “I don’t know what other words. Pretty speechless. It’s something that you know you can do, but sometimes — obviously in Australia we had a lot of success with poles and wins and all that sort of stuff and you know you can do it, but you have a hard year like ’21 where it just didn’t click and there was a few things where you just didn’t put it together, but you know the speed is there. It’s all about taking pressure off yourself and just focusing on what you need to do, and that’s what we did today.”
McLaughlin, credited his new engineer and even his past one to get him to this moment.
“Really working well with my new engineer, Ben Bretzman, who’s been fantastic for me. Jonathan Diuguid, who I used to work with, he basically helped me to this moment,” McLaughlin continued. “He was the one engineer I worked with to this point, and Ben has picked me up and just polished me off a little bit there. I feel good.
“Yeah, it’s one. Hopefully I’d like to have more, but at the end of the day, it’s qualifying, and tomorrow is the big day, so we’ll see what we’ve got.”
His teammate, Power, wasn’t shocked at all by that lap. He said he expected this out of McLaughlin this season.
“No, it’s not surprising,” he said. “You saw it in practice last year. He just had a few issues in qualifying getting through the rounds a couple times. But the potential was there.
“He’s been at a very high level in a very competitive series for quite a few years, so he knows the game. He knows the game well. He knows the car now. You really expect him to be there every time.
“I mean, man, the experience he had in the series down there in Australia, he’s had a number of years at a very high level as. He knows how to put it together. It’s just a matter of him getting used to this car which he has now, and yeah, I’m expecting him to be a contender for the season.”
We, like Power, should have seen this coming though.
McLaughlin, was P1 in the morning practice earlier today. Still, with three crashes in 45 minutes in that session, not many drivers were able to log more than a handful of laps on the Firestone alternate tires. We all were still just assuming that the pole would come down to Power vs. Colton Herta.
Even into the final minute of the Fast Six we were too.
They were trading blows all day. Herta, in the first group of the first round, went 59.4662-seconds to set the new track record. Previously, it belonged to Jordan King who went 1:00.0476-seconds in 2018.
In the next group, Power one upped him. He went 59.3929-seconds to narrowly top Herta for the track record.
In Q2, they went 1-2 but Power went 59.3466-seconds to break his own record. McLaughlin, was third.
Now, it was a Fast Six of Power, Herta, McLaughlin, Romain Grosjean, Simon Pagenaud and Rinus VeeKay. 5 of the 6 had won at least one INDYCAR pole before. The one that hadn’t?
Power, had nine St. Pete poles to his credit including seven or his last eight here having front row starting spots on this scenic street circuit. Herta, was the defending pole winner and took last year’s pole to a dominating win for which he led 97 of 100 laps. He also won the season finale a year ago too.
Instead, it was McLaughlin who stole it away in the closing seconds.
Power (59.6058-seconds) will start second in his No. 12 Chevrolet to give it an all Team Penske front row. They’ve won 11 of the last 16 St. Pete poles and 5 of the last 8 including 2 of the last 3 races as well.
“Well, it’s just much better than last year,” he says. “Last year was P20, so here’s to starting further up the front and hopefully the first corner is good. Many names went through my head who were behind me then. I’m like, there’s some potential for a bit of mayhem there.
“I was very happy up until the last run. I was like P1, P1, P1, P2. But it was good. Like honestly, I feel like I got the most out of the session. I guess there’s not much I could have done. What I could have done in the last one was to fuel for just one lap and may have had a shot. But yeah, like I said, starting way ahead of last year at this track.”
Herta (59.7104-seconds) will start third in his No. 26 Honda while VeeKay (59.8102-seconds) joins him on Row 2 in his No. 21 Chevrolet.
Grosjean (59.8116-seconds) and Pagenaud (1:00.2041-seconds) rounded out the Fast Six session.
Fast 6 Not Too Shocking Other Than Rossi’s Absence
I called the Fast Six this morning.
With the way things were shaping up, why not? McLaughlin was eighth on Friday but quickest in the 45-minute morning session on Saturday. Grosjean was fastest on Friday but crashed on Saturday. His car had speed. Power was third and fifth respectively in the two practices. Herta, was second in each. Pagenaud was fourth and third himself. VeeKay, was ninth and sixth respectively so it’s not as shocking as it seems to see him in the Fast Six. He’s been strong all weekend.
Rossi was the only outlier. He was sixth and fourth but never made it out of the first round and will start 13th.
Penske Win Coming?
They’ve been winners in 5 of the last 8 years and 2 of the last 3 and swept the front row. Does this translate to a win on Sunday? The thing is, only three times has the pole winner won this race but the most recent was a year ago by Herta. The last time?
2010 by Power.
Still, all three cars are in the top nine of the starting lineup and could truly have a big day coming on Sunday afternoon.
“Yeah, definitely. We had a bad year last year, so certainly came into this season determined but with a lot of work behind that, a lot of work and understanding,” Power said. “When you have a struggle, a year of struggle, you always come back and have a pretty close look at what you were missing.
“That’s kind of what we turned up with here.” Missed out on qualifying last year, so I was very determined to make it to the Fast Six was the first thing. Well, make it to the Fast 12, honestly, and then the Six. So we got there, just one short of pole, man.”
Power Stopped Of Inching Closer To Andretti
Will Power enters 2022 with 63 career poles. He’s four shy of tying Mario Andretti for most all-time. On Saturday, he was only .2 second from No. 64.
Power, broke the track record in the first round and then topped his own record in Q2. But, it was his teammate Scott McLaughlin, not he, on the pole for Sundays race as McLaughlin narrowly topped Power for the top spot in qualifying on Saturday.
“Poles keep eluding me down to this last like five that I need,” said Power. “After that I don’t care about pole.”
Power, won five poles in 2020, three in 2019 and four more in 2017. He won six poles in 2016.
“I want 68,” he said. “68, yeah. I know it’ll be tough. A lot of good guys.”
Power, who was in the top five of both practices this weekend, said he lost the pole in Turn 9.
“Yeah, 9, that’s where on my first lap I lost time is out of 9. I probably lost a tenth down the back straight.
“Yeah, apart from that it was a pretty good lap. That’s the only place where I overcharged the entry a little bit and didn’t get the ideal exit. Yeah.”
Now, he goes for his third win in the annual season opener.
Ganassi’s Weekend Improvement
Friday’s practice session was a concern out of the Ganassi camp. They only went 15-17-19-24 in the opening practice session to the season. On Saturday morning, they’d surely be back to their rightful spot on top of the speed charts right?
Palou crashed but he was seventh. Johnson had several problems and was 25th out of 26 cars. Marcus Ericsson was 15th yesterday and 13th today. Dixon, was 19th and now 20th.
By no surprise, none of their four cars made the Fast Six. However, they still showed improvement. Johnson, will still start last (26th) but the other three at least made it out of the first round.
Dixon and Ericsson will share Row 4. Palou will roll off 10th.
Dixon, is 0-for-17 in St. Pete but does have four runner-ups including three podiums in the last five years. He’s within striking distance of another podium in coming from seventh.
Ericsson, was seventh in each of the last two years and starts eighth. Palou, was only 13th and 17th in his last two years at St. Pete so he’s one I’m not sure what we’ll see out of Sunday.
Still, Saturday’s qualifying was an improvement from practice.
Pagenaud’s Switch To MSR Paying Off
The car that Simon Pagenaud is racing this weekend qualified second and finished fourth in last year’s race. Pagenaud, finished third for his seventh top seven in the last nine St. Pete tries a year ago. Now, he takes over Harvey’s No. 60 Honda with Meyer Shank Racing.
So far, he’s picking up where they left off in 2021.
Pagenaud, qualified sixth after being fourth and third in practice so far. I like his chances for a sleeper podium on Sunday.
Kirkwood, AJ Foyt Racing Impressive So Far
We have 6 rookies here in St. Pete this weekend and five of them didn’t make it out of the first round. That’s not shocking in the sense INDYCAR qualifying is difficult. But, for Kyle Kirkwood to do so was eye opening.
He qualified his No. 14 Chevrolet 12th. That comes after being 12th in practice on Friday and 8th on Saturday.
The American driver was first and fifth respectively in USF2000 competition in 2018, 14th and 2nd in 2019 during Indy Pro 2000. Last year in Indy Lights, he was 1st and 2nd again. Now, he has a shot at being the top rookie if he can keep his No. 14 Chevrolet clean the rest of the way.
His teammate exceled too. Dalton Kellett had a career best qualifying effort of 14th in his No. 4 Chevrolet too. Their third car in Tatiana Calderon will roll off 25th.
AMSP Eliminated In Round 1 Of Quals
Another shocking moment was that both Arrow McLaren SP cars failed to make it out of the first round on Saturday. Pato O’Ward will start 16th with his teammate Felix Rosenqvist coming from 21st.
In saying that though, O’Ward qualified 16th on the streets of Belle Isle last year and won. Can he do so again?