NASHVILLE, Tenn — Scott McLaughlin must love that red and white Dex Imagine livery wrapped around his No. 3 Dallara-Chevrolet. The 2nd year NTT INDYCAR Series driver is 2-for-2 in it. He won the season opener at St. Pete as well at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on July 3. So far this weekend on the streets of Nashville, McLaughlin is powering his car to the top of the speed charts.
McLaughlin put down a banker lap on the final lap of qualifying to score his 2nd career pole. The New Zealand native circled the 2.1-mile course with a time of 1:14.5555-seconds which was good enough for his third straight top 4 starting spot on the season.
He’ll be joined on the front row by Romain Grosjean as the Andretti Autosport driver went 1:14.6975-seconds in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda. Grosjean just beat Christian Lundgaard (1:14.7149-seconds) and thought at the time he had a lap good enough for his 2nd career pole.
Instead, McLaughlin went just after and topped him.
“Yeah, just stoked, man,” said McLaughlin. “The car has been just absolutely phenomenal all weekend since we really rolled out the truck. We massaged it overnight, came out with a beauty today. Really haven’t touch it apart from a little bit of front wing.
“It’s a credit to Ben and then the team, DEX Imaging Chevy car is good. I’m really excited for tomorrow. I think it’s obviously going to be a pretty blockbuster, crazy race. To start from the front, last year I think I started from Narnia last year, I don’t know where I was. I was 20th. So it’s going to be a lot easier to start, control the pace hopefully, and see where we go.”
Grosjean will roll off on the front row after scoring his 3rd top 10 starting spot in the last 4 races. He also qualified 2nd in Long Beach, a race he’d finish 6th in.
“It’s good. It feels good,” said Grosjean. “I think we’ve made a lot of work. We’ve had a fair bit of issues recently on different level. But, during practice we made a few changes to the car. It came to life. And I liked it.
“From there we worked. Made a setup change. Thanks to my boys because they’ve been working really hard recently. It just feels bloody good to have some fun back behind the wheel, being able to do what I like.”
Even though McLaughlin sits 7th in points, he’s rattling off good finish after good finish and a win on Sunday could put him right back into the thick of things.
“Yeah, the belief is there absolutely,” he says. “I’ve said it all along, I feel like a little bit of an underdog in this. There’s no reason why we can’t go on a run. These are four tracks that I really enjoy.
“I mean, Gateway we ran fourth. Portland I out-qualified my teammates. Feel like our cars are quicker there this year. No reason why we can’t be fast there again. Laguna, I love that track. I just made a mess of qualifying, as I did all last year.
“Really excited for this final run. Anything can happen. It’s INDYCAR. We have a solid week, focus on ourselves, who knows what will happen.
“Yeah, certainly a position I’m not unfamiliar with, that’s for sure.”
Lundgaard will start a career best third in his No. 30 Dallara-Honda while Alex Palou (1:14.9087-seconds), Pato O’Ward (1:14.9261-seconds) and Josef Newgarden (1:15.1461-seconds) rounded out the Fast 6.
“Yeah, wish it doesn’t stop for a number of races,” Lundgaard said. “It’s been good. Looking at our first Fast Six last weekend, carrying it into this weekend. We were quick straightaway in practice yesterday and kind of carried it on into qualifying. I messed up early in Q2, locked up and caused the yellow for Pato, had to do a drive-through.
“Coming out there on the greens, just getting that lap in early, then hoping it was going to stick, and it did, it was quite nerve-wracking at that point.”
Each shared the top of the speed charts in practice so far this weekend. Lundgaard topped Practice 1 while McLaughlin was quickest on Saturday morning. McLaughlin was also 4th on Friday while Lundgaard was 9th today too.
They now look like the favorites to land a Nashville win on Sunday.
Lundgaard finished runner-up last Saturday on the Indy road course and now has 5 top 11 results in the last 6 races on the year. He had just 2 in the first 7.
Malukas Quietly There
David Malukas isn’t letting Lundgaard get too far away from him in the rookie of the year standings. While the Danish driver in Lundgaard is making more noise lately, Malukas isn’t too far behind. He’ll start 7th in his No. 18 Dallara-Honda for his 5th top 8 starting spot in the last 8 races.
Ganassi/Andretti Cars Largely Struggle
Yes Alex Palou and Romain Grosjean made the Fast 6. But each also are the only drivers on their respective teams to make it out of the first round of qualifying too. Among the bottom 14 starters for Sunday’s race, 6 belong to Andretti Autosport or Chip Ganassi Racing.
Andretti saw Colton Herta and Devlin DeFrancesco bring out reds in the first group of the opening round which cost a lot of drivers times. One was their other teammate Alexander Rossi.
Ganassi had 3 drivers in the 2nd group and all struggled to find speed. Scott Dixon starts 14th, Marcus Ericsson in 18th and Jimmie Johnson 26th. This is the area to which they may lose the championship this season — qualifying.
With 3 cars in the fight to win the Astor Cup, the 2 of the 3 are struggling in qualifying pace this season. Dixon enters this weekend 4th in points but his 14th starting spot is his 4th straight in either Row 7 or worse. He’s qualified 10th or worse in 8 of the 14 races run this season. Ericsson is in a similar situation. He’s now started in Row 6 or worse in 5 of the last 6 races and on 8 occurrence this year as well.
Luckily for each, they move up quickly in the race. Dixon has 12 top 10’s in 13 races run. Ironically enough, the only time he didn’t finish in the top 10 was when he started on the pole for the Indy 500. Ericsson has 10 top 10’s in 13 races run too.
If they started closer to the front, just think of the damage they could do.
Meanwhile Palou has 8 qualifying efforts being 7th or better, all coming in the last 12 races too. He’s however going backwards with just 1 top 5 finish in the last 9 races run on the season too.
For Herta, this is a disaster weekend after being quickest in literally every session last year. He won the pole too and led the most laps but crashed out while trying to charge for the win. He was only 8th in both practice sessions and starts 23rd.
4 of the top 7 in the NTT INDYCAR Series points standings entering the weekend made the Fast 6. However, it wasn’t the top 2 in points though and 3 of the top 4 at that.
Will Power was penalized his fastest laps and will start 8th. Marcus Ericsson will come from 18th. Luckily for him, he won from there last year and it looks like this year can be won from anywhere again.
Scott Dixon enters 4th in points and starts 14th. They’re all looking up at 7th in points McLaughlin and 6th in points Palou who start 1st and 4th respectively. 5th in points in Pato O’Ward rolls off 5th while 3rd in points Josef Newgarden starts 6th.
Nashville isn’t your typical street courses. Yes, it has similar characteristics but this track is almost like the Daytona and Talladega of the INDYCAR schedule. Last year saw 9 cautions for 33 laps. This weekend has already been messy.
That’s why strategy is going to play a role into Sunday’s race because cautions could come in spurts and for no rhyme or reason. It’s going to come down to luck honestly.
“I feel like this year, whether you start — I mean, the worst crash last year, or I guess the worst crash that could continue, won last year,” said Pato O’Ward. “I guess it doesn’t really matter where you start, thinking of what the history has been here.
“It’s a good place to start (5th). There’s just going to be I think a lot of yellows. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong. I don’t think we’re going to go full green. I just don’t see that happening with how hot it’s getting inside the cars, with how long the races are, with how hot it’s going to be. People are going to get tired, touch a wall here or there. There’s going to be mishaps for sure.
“You can be pole, you can be second or third. We’re starting in the first three rows. A yellow falls not in your favor, you’re going straight to the back.
“I think tomorrow it’s going to be all about nailing and having some Lady Luck with the strategy because I don’t think it’s going to matter where you start. I think someone with a good car in the back, they nail on a good yellow, they’re going to go straight to the front and they’re going to stay there.”
There’s that factor. There’s also the factor of the heat as well. It’s been upper 80s to low 90s this weekend. It’s not just the heat, but it’s also the humidity to which is making life dreadful inside of these cars for these drivers.
“Yeah, we don’t have them,” O’Ward said of the cool suits. “It’s horrible in the car. It’s unbearable. Like, I think this is probably going to be the worst race. Yeah, I cannot explain how horrendous it is inside of the car.
“Like tomorrow they’ll probably mandate the roof scoops. But, yeah, I mean, every braking zone, I’m having to clear my sweat because there’s no ventilation in the car. Every braking zone, even with me trying to clear it out, I’m still like splatting sweat all over my visor. It’s horrible.”
Then you have the threat of rain too.
“Yeah, look, no doubt it’s going to be a pretty crazy race,” said pole sitter Scott McLaughlin. “Last year’s was pretty long in bone-dry conditions. I’m sure with a little bit of rain it’s going to be crazy.
“A lot of painted lines in the middle of apexes here on tight corners with no room for error. I sort of looked at that before. I thought we might have had a bit of wet then. I was trying to figure out where the lines were and whatnot.
“Yeah, it’s pretty crazy. We’ll see what happens during the race.”