INDIANAPOLIS — It’s been a “sweet as” season for 2nd year Team Penske driver Scott McLaughlin so far. The 29-year old currently sits 7th in the NTT INDYCAR Series points after being 14th a year ago. He’s reached victory lane twice (St. Pete, Mid-Ohio) which after doing so, he wants nothing more than to do so for a 3rd time. Then a 4th. And so on.
“Yeah, I think just every win, man, it’s a pretty boring answer, but that’s what you go out there to do, you go out there to win,” McLaughlin told me on Wednesday afternoon.
“I understood, like, victory lane, what it was all about, more so in the second win. So sort of understand the festivities, hat dances, whatever you got to do. St. Pete was just a whirlwind in terms of what happened.
“You could say it was unexpected, as well. We poled it, but at the same time it’s a lot to put a race together in INDYCAR. That was just a really, really special moment in my career, my life. I’ll never, ever forget that one.
“Now sort of for me I look at it as business as usual. I’ll celebrate the wins as much as I can, but at the same time I’m expecting for myself, I expect myself to go out there and I’ve got a car that’s good enough to win the race, win the race.
“That’s how I’ve always been. I’ve been very lucky to have cars that have allowed me to do that. Yeah, it’s all part of it. Just keep ticking them off hopefully one by one.”
See, the fight for the first win is one thing. It only took McLaughlin 18 races to do so. Once you tasted victory however, the thirst is more dire. You want to do it again. He won 8 starts later back on July 3 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in the Honda Indy 200. That win was the 1st time that he’s done so with his parents on US soil. They were still in New Zealand when he won back in late February at St. Pete.
His “houseguests” are just now nearing the end of their US stay. They hold a 90 visa for visiting and we’re approaching those 3 months now. While McLaughlin missed his parents between his move from the Land Down Under to America, he’s now singing a different tune.
“Look, I am 29 years old, though. Living with your parents for as long as we have, it does get on your nerves after a while smile,” he said of his parents being here. “I’m sad to see them go, but I’m kind of like it’s enough (laughter).
“I’m being honest. They know as much as I do.
“We’ve had a lot of laughs. Mum and dad for them to see and understand INDYCAR a bit more. They understand the racing a lot more.
“Going back to watching in New Zealand, they’re going to be a lot more understanding of the strategy, what goes on, especially during ovals. I think it’s awesome to have a firsthand experience how it felt for them.”
However, he’d like to send his parents out with a victory. None bigger than at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This place is magical to McLaughlin.
This weekend will be another visit to a place so special to not only him, but the guy signing his pay checks too.
Roger Penske owns the place. McLaughlin would love nothing more than to give Penske a win in his own race at his own track. Just look at all the branding this weekend. Gallagher on Saturday for the NTT INDYCAR Series race. Pennzoil for the NASCAR Xfinity Series directly after. Verizon for the NASCAR Cup Series on Sunday.
All Penske sponsors.
“We know how much that place means to Roger,” said McLaughlin. “I said to my mum and dad the other day, I’d love to win here. Regardless if it’s the 500 month, month of May, whatever. Just to win at Indianapolis would be very, very special.
“On this weekend we saw Austin (Cindric) do it last year, won the Xfinity race. I think it would be really cool to be able to — I think Will, as well, Will won the INDYCAR race. I think it just would be really cool to etch your name into the winner’s circle in Indy. Especially now with Roger owning the place.
“There’s definitely a NASCAR-INDYCAR competition between the team, which is a great thing. That’s what Roger always eggs on. It’s a friendly rivalry, but we all want to do really, really well for him at his circuit.”
That rivalry will spill over to a friendly golf competition on Thursday. Sounds like it’s a Team Chevy INDYCAR driver battle vs. the Team Ford NASCAR side. McLaughlin expects to win as he’s a pretty good golfer he says.
That McLaughlin hopes can also propel him to a strong on track weekend too. He enters this weekend on the heels of a podium the last time out last Sunday afternoon in Iowa. He feels like he had a car capable of one on Saturday too if not for a problem with his right rear tire on his final pit stop that relegated him to a 22nd place result.
“We had some really good results going on there on Saturday at Iowa,” he said. “I think we could have easily walked away with two podiums. At least to get one was fantastic. First time racing in Iowa. Certainly first time qualifying there. Felt we were pretty competitive. Certainly a lot different to what I’ve been used to on some of the other short tracks and even some of the big ovals.”
Still, he has 7 top 10’s on the season, 4 of which in the last 5 races. He’s had more top 10’s this season (7) in 12 races than he had in his previous 17 starts (5).
While he had a pair of top two finishes to start the 2022 season off with and a 6th in Barber, he feels like this stretch now is where he’s finding his groove.
“I feel a lot more at home with everything,” said McLaughlin. “Even off track it’s great. Going to the tracks I understand bit more. Got my bus set up now which is really nice to have at the racetrack. In a really good head space off the track.
“On track I’ve really gelled, pretty well-known, with my engineer Ben Bretzman, and my strategist Kyle Moyer. Got a really good team there in terms of pit stops as well.
“I feel really, really and at home. I’m starting to get a feel for INDYCAR and the aggression needed and the confidence to do that, which has been a huge thing for me.”
One could say ovals remarkably suit his style even without having any starts prior on them. He finished 2nd in his oval debut at Texas last season. He was 2nd in a photo finish after leading the most laps this time around. He was 8th in the 2nd part of a doubleheader on the 1.5-mile track last year. For short ovals, he was 4th in Gateway last year as well as 3rd and what should have been another podium in both Iowa races last weekend. Indy has been a struggle but it has been lately for Penske overall.
That’s 5 top 8 finishes, 4 of which in the top 4 in 8 oval starts. On natural road courses though, he has 3 top 7’s in 4 passes. So beginning with this weekend and ending the stretch for the season finale on Sept. 11 at Laguna Seca, 3 of the final 5 races to 2022 are on natural road courses. 1 of the remaining 2 is a short oval at World Wide Technology Raceway.
“Yeah, if we get on a bit of a roll. I’m going to all tracks right now I feel really comfortable with,” he says. “Indy, Nashville, Gateway, Laguna and Portland, all these tracks last year, this is where I sort of got on my roll a little bit, started really building up for 2022.
“Really excited to hit these tracks, go top five for the rest of the year, maybe squeeze in a couple wins. I definitely think that’s attainable. There’s a huge amount of confidence.”
This truly is a prime stretch for McLaughlin to keep improving. By doing so, his goals have shifted. He wants to win a championship. Badly. However, he also is realistic too in knowing that he enters this weekend 86 points out of the lead as well.
That’s a lot to make up in 5 races, especially on a driver that’s scored 19 top 10 finishes over his last 22 starts dating back to last season, including 8 straight in the top 8. If you want to win a title this year, you’re going to have to win multiple times over the next 5 race stretch.
For McLaughlin’s case, he knows that in order to win a race in the series these days, plus facing the deficit that he’s currently in, they can afford to take more risks. What do they have to lose?
However, while taking risks and gambles can pay dividends, it could also ruin any momentum too. McLaughlin is okay taking risks to win, but he also has his sights set on being in the top 5 at the end of the season on points too. That would be a massive accomplishment in just his 2nd full time season at the helm.
“Yeah, I don’t think we need to be silly,” he told me on if he can swing for the fences now to make up that deficit. “Our ultimate goal, we’d like to be in the top five of the championship. To win the championship would be an absolute bonus, absolutely. We’ll literally do the best thing we can, at the same time doing what we need to do for the team as well.
“We’re focused on just getting the most out of it. If we need to take a risk here or there, we’re in a position that we’re able to do that. So it’s a little bit less I guess consequence if something does happen for us.
“Yeah, you got to control that risk versus reward. But we definitely look at it now where maybe we can have a risk here or there.
“We can risk a little more if we need. We’re in a position 86 points off, we have nothing to lose. One bad race, we’re sort of out of it. We have to go after it, see what we’ve got.
“Yeah, I’d love to be in the top five, love to win the championship. But a top five would be a big tick in the box.”
He’s only 50 points out of 5th at the moment and 1 of the guys between he and Pato O’Ward (5th) is Alex Palou. The defending series champion is now facing a messy impending divorce with his current team while also driving for said team. As a result, he’s only had 1 top 5 in the last 8 races run.
At that point, McLaughlin is battling his 2 other teammates, 2 Ganassi drivers (Ericsson and Scott Dixon) and O’Ward for a spot in the top 5. That’s 6 drivers for 5 spots there.
“I’ve been really happy with our progress this year,” he says. “I surely would like to be a little bit closer. I think Saturday really hurt in terms of points-wise where we’re at in the championship. I think we still have that belief that we can come back in the top five and potentially win the championship.
“It’s going to be hard to beat the front five. They’re very strong and they’re racing up the front every week, not making mistakes. That’s ultimately what we need to make sure we do on car 3.
“You’re past the point of relying on luck right now. Wins are going to do it. Wins are going to separate you from all of us. Either the wins are going to get back into contention, and we saw at that Mid-Ohio when I won, 10th to sixth, I was right there. Things can change pretty quickly.
“I fully believe if we got on a roll, potentially got top threes for the rest of the year, you never know where that puts you. That’s a lot of points. That’s just our goal.”
Even if he doesn’t get into the top 5, it’s all about ending the season strong to carry over this momentum for his 3rd year in the series in 2023.
“Yeah, I think two wins is probably really good,” he says of his season. “I always want to win more, but I think it was a good goal to win a race this year. We did that. To win two is fantastic. I wouldn’t say my boxes are checked, but I believe we’ve had a really good run with it this year and something we can build into 2023.