O’Ward and McLaughlin started going in opposite directions at Long Beach, now they’re on the front row for Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 (12 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network)

LEXINGTON, Ohio — Scott McLaughlin started the 2022 NTT INDYCAR Series season off with his first career pole and first career win. Both occurred 24 hours from one another in the season opener on the streets of St. Pete. The 2nd race saw the Team Penske driver start 2nd, lead a race-high 186 of 248 laps and come home a close runner-up at Texas in a thrilling photo finish with teammate Josef Newgarden.

Pato O’Ward started the exact opposite. His head was down and his results lacking. With what began as a bright future with his team, he started questioning their intentions. O’Ward has made it clear. By time he’s 25, he wants to be a Formula One driver. With a win at Texas in 2021, that dream came even more to light. It became a reality.

He got to test an F1 car this offseason. The appetite was even heavier than he expected it to be. But the young Mexican star was going into his third Indy Car season and knowing he’d turn 23 in May. He had 2 years to get to where he wanted to wanted to go.

The team he was driving for in INDYCAR (Arrow McLaren SP) also had an F1 team (McLaren F1). It was a perfect match. Then, the news came out that the test program was set for the F1 side and O’Ward wasn’t included. Colton Herta was.

Now he was irate. With clauses for both sides to opt out between now and the end of the 2024 season, O’Ward was now looking elsewhere in the INDYCAR paddock for 2023 or even 2024.

While doing so, his results showed. Not in a positive light either. He qualified 16th and finished 12th in St. Pete. He’d then start 10th and finish 15th in Texas.

McLaughlin held the points lead. O’Ward was a distant 13th.

Then Long Beach happened and changed the entire trajectory of both of their seasons. McLaughlin qualified 9th. O’Ward 11th. In the morning warmup in Long Beach, McLaughlin’s engine on his No. 3 Dallara-Chevrolet blew. He was affected in the race and came home 14th. O’Ward was done sulking in his side of the paddock. Instead of search, why not make it hard for McLaren F1 to not sign him overseas. Leverage Arrow McLaren SP for McLaren F1.

It worked.

He finished 5th and moved from 13th to 9th in points. McLaughlin fell to 2nd.

At Barber, O’Ward qualified on the front row (2nd). McLaughlin was 4th. O’Ward won the race a day later. McLaughlin was 6th. Now, O’Ward was up to 5th where McLaughlin stayed in 2nd.

The gap was closing.

For the Month of May, McLaughlin’s troubles continued. He qualified 11th and 26th for the 2 races at Indianapolis and finished 20th and 29th respectively. O’Ward was 19th and 2nd with the runner-up being a double points event.

O’Ward passed McLaughlin in points. He was now 2nd and McLaughlin 7th.

For Belle Isle McLaughlin started 10th and finished 19th. The slump dropped him to 10th now. O’Ward was 5th.

Road America started the trend back up for McLaughlin. He just needed a clean weekend. He got one with finishing 7th after starting 9th. O’Ward qualified 5th but had engine troubles in the end and wound up 26th.

He went to 4th in points heading into this weekend’s race in Mid-Ohio. McLaughlin moved back up to 9th.

Now, they’ll share the front row for Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 (12 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network). Where this is big is, 6 of the last 7 races at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course were won from the front row. Also, 6 of the last 7 races on natural road course races in series competition were won by a front row starter.

Pato O’Ward practicing at Mid-Ohio on Saturday. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

“I think it just — I went through so much adversity last year that this was nothing,” he said. “This is water off a duck’s back in some ways to what was going on. We were still — the last few races unfortunately haven’t gone great for us. We were competing potentially to be in top 5s and whatnot. It’s not like the pace wasn’t there.

“I think it’s hard going from my mentality of in Australia where I was winning a lot and I think the last — last year in Australia we won 14 races or something. It’s hard to go from a mentality of just cutthroat, you have to win every weekend, if you don’t it’s a bad race, to just coping with top 10s, top 15s. Regardless of what situation you are, you’re a competitive beast, you built yourself out to be. Every person in here, every driver is a competitive individual.

“It’s very hard to sort of get out of that and just go, okay, well, I’ve got to learn. I’ve got to just build with this. I’ve got to build with the team. I’ve got to build with the car. It does take some time, and it definitely took me more time than I thought. I think Tim and Roger knew exactly how long it was going to take. That’s why they’re the experts.

“I just had to trust the process, trust them and trust what we had going on here, and I think, yeah, we are in the right spot. I’m competing for top 5s every week, top 8s every week. I think we’re right where we want to be, but we’ve got a long which to go before we’re where Josef is right now, and I’ve got certainly a nice person to groove myself on.

“Last year we lost ourselves a little bit because the pace wasn’t there. That’s sort of — that was what was the tough pill to swallow. But yeah, certainly last year shaped me to be — trust the process, trust what I’m doing is right.”

For the on track portion of McLaughlin’s day, he said that he didn’t quite nail Turn 12, which is the first turn, and then probably Turn 2 that he felt like he went really deep.

“Yeah, Turn 2. Probably cost myself a little bit of time there,” he continued. “But look, I think Pato’s lap was pretty stout. I think that’s very strong — to be honest when I crossed the line I was like, that must be pretty close, if not pole, because we did a run early in qualifying on a used set and went out in 67.5. To do a 66.8 was good, and then Pato’s 66.7, so it shows how much the track evolved. Anyway, I deliberately told the guys, don’t tell me the time that I’m chasing; just let me drive. That sort of worked out well.”

For O’Ward, he’s hoping to capitalize on a rare opportunity. The top 3 in points ahead of him all were elminated in the first round.

“I think it’s a significant difference to what my view has been here in INDYCAR at least,” O’Ward said of the pressure. “I’ve had very successful weekends here in junior formulas but haven’t really capitalized in a week in an INDYCAR, so this is the first step.

“I’m excited for tomorrow. I think we will have as strong a race car as we’ve had in the past. The problem is we just haven’t really had that chance to make our life a little bit easier during the race and not have to pass so many cars.

“I guess you look at it and it’s a great opportunity to capitalize, right. But there’s so many rules in INDYCAR. There’s certain rules that can really throw your race upside down if something happens that you really can’t control. Sometimes it is a lot better to actually start in the back as we saw in like Portland last year than being in the front.

“Yeah, I think we’ve definitely executed when qualifying came, and I think tomorrow we just need to take the race as it comes and just be sure that we can react to certain things to keep our position.”

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