LEXINGTON, Ohio — Good thing for Scott McLaughlin that track position is still everything at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and that his teammate Will Power qualified 21st. If not for either, then one could make a strong case that McLaughlin would be the one on the bottom step of the podium looking up at Power and Alex Palou instead.
McLaughlin brought his No. 3 Dallara-Honda first in Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 to become 7th winner in the last 8 races at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course to win from the front row. He lucked out with 2 of the bottom 4 finishers in Sunday’s wild race finishing in the bottom 4 in the 80 lapper. 3rd place starter didn’t pit before the second to last caution flew to make McLaughlin the only driver to come from the top 2 Rows to even score a top 14 finish.
His teammate in Power came from 21st to a spin on the opening lap to fall to 27th to rebound with a fast race car to come away 3rd.
“Yeah, I definitely feel like we had the fastest car because in the second practice I had left three tenths on the table,” Power said. “I was up three tenths and the throttle broke, and then obviously in qualifying we had our issue. We had the fastest car and it really hurts to give up a chance at a pole or potentially a win, but to get back to third, you’re not looking back on those days saying that’s why we lost a championship, definitely.
“If you don’t make any mistakes, just to start with, and then you have a fast car on top of that and you make smart moves, you’re going to make positions.”
He did just that and if this race went any longer, he could have won….maybe.
It was so hard to pass still on this 2.258-mile rural Ohio road course. Palou felt like he had a faster car than McLaughlin. He just couldn’t pass him in the end.
“Yeah, I think we had a fast car, but here it’s also tough to — as I said with the same tires to try and get a run if he doesn’t do a mistake. He was perfect today,” Palou said of McLaughlin.
“I was just trying to push him to maybe just get a run. We had two or three runs into 4, but that was on the outside and I was not really like side by side, so I thought it was not the best move I could make.
“It’s super tough to pass here, at least if you are on the same tire strategy. I think we were a bit faster but couldn’t really pass Scott. He did an amazing race, too”
McLaughlin, had to hold off Palou on a couple of late race restarts, the first on Lap 56 and the second on Lap 61. While Palou gave it his best efforts as he said, McLaughlin said he learned enough from the previous 4 to know what to do better on the last one to counter and hold Palou off.
“Yeah, you know, one thing, each restart I learned something, and I knew where he was strong, where he wasn’t, where I was strong, where I wasn’t,” he said. “It just sort of made me figure out a few spots. That was definitely a restart that he wasn’t ideal for me, but I would have been surprised if Alex had got past me at that corner. I was driving him pretty deep, and he was on my outside.
“Yeah, but thankfully I was able to learn and continue to build, and that’s all part of it.”
McLaughlin knew that Palou was on red tires too and that he had new black tires on his. He said he was thankful for that second yellow because he had no tire temp in his tires. Luckily, the final caution flew 3 laps later.
“If anything I was thankful for the second yellow that we got when I was on the black tire because actually I was able to almost build pressure a little bit there and then get a feel for what it was going to be like, and then it was just a matter of just putting it together the next couple restarts, and like I said, learning from my mistakes,” McLaughlin continued.
“I was a little bit nervous probably the last restart potentially because red tires behind both me and Alex. I was hoping that they would keep him behind because it gave us a bit of a buffer, and thankfully that happened.”
Once the restart was over, McLaughlin knew he had to outsmart Palou too.
“I think I pulled away from him a little bit with sort of 10 to go, and then I sort of felt like he was going to be looking out for his tires, so I backed off a little bit more, just to look after mine,” he said. “But the best thing about my race was I had some Push-to-Pass up my sleeve, so I was able to sort of use that as a defense tool, as well.
“Yeah, that was certainly a help towards the end there, and yeah, it was just a bit of a cat-and-mouse game from that point. Alex would come at me a little bit, and I would heat his tires up, and then I’d pull away and he’d back off, and it would sort of go that way. Really the only thing that was going to be a little bit of drama for us was if I made a mistake or there was a restart, and thankfully the race went green until the end.”
However, if the Lap 31 caution flies 2 laps sooner, then we may be talking about Palou in a win instead. He pit a few laps earlier on that opening sequence. Kyle Kirkwood make contact with the wall in Turn 9. INDYCAR swallowed the whistle so to say, to allow the leaders to pit before throwing the yellow.
That drew the ire of some competitors who felt like it the incident was enough to merit a caution, and it was, then you can’t not throw the yellow out immediately.
It allowed Pato O’Ward, McLaughlin, Colton Herta and others to pit and not be penalized for running the opening stint long.
Palou likely would have cycled to the lead.
“Yeah, a shame that we couldn’t — as I said, that yellow hurt us a little bit, but so far it was a good race for us,” he said. “It’s the same rules for everybody. But it’s good. It’s good to be back here. Good to fight until the end.
“I was super happy. We had a fast car. Honda gave us everything we needed today with mileage. That’s why we were able to pit early and try and get that under card that worked. It was a bit of a shame that we got that yellow because we were leading by two seconds when we passed pit exit.”