NASHVILLE, Tenn — Scott McLaughlin should be disappointed. 2nd place is he first loser. He was dejected after feeling like he gave Josef Newgarden a win earlier this season in Texas. The New Zealand native led a race-high 186 laps that day but Newgarden passed him around the outside on the final lap to win a photo finish.
Fast forward to Sunday in Nashville. McLaughlin was 4th in practice on Friday. He was quickest in Saturday morning’s session and even won the pole later on in the day. He had a car more than capable of a win.
He didn’t. He finished 2nd in another photo finish. This time to countrymate Scott Dixon. It’s the 2nd time in his career he’s finished 2nd to Dixon. This one though felt different. McLaughlin had every reason to be stunned that cautions and a bad pit stop let this one get away from him. However, he was happy with the points that he accumulated instead and thrilled to be battling his hero and fellow New Zealander at the end as the icing on the cake.
“I was thinking a little bit of points as well,” McLaughlin says on that final restart. “This is going to be a good points day with Ericsson out. And we’re always back there, Justin is behind me, Alex as well. We were ahead of him. Pato as well.
“At the end of the day, we just had a really good race today, and we did. The opportunity was there a couple of times, and then just it probably would have ended up with us both in the fence if I took it. We just missed out.
“But to battle one-on-one with Scotty right where, Texas last year, I didn’t really battle with him, I just wanted to bring him home in second.
“Today I had a full go with him, and it was awesome. That was probably one of the top three best things of my career to date, that race.”
He says that if the race was 1 lap longer he has no reason to believe he wasn’t going to pass Dixon.
“I think if we had one more lap. I was alongside him, so I think I would have passed him, and I would have won the race, but that’s — if it was an 86-lap race, I would have won the race, but it was an 85, goddamn it. I’m going speak to the promoters. Why don’t we add a little more next year? But then I might be another foot.
“That’s just motor racing. That’s why we love it. I think it’s a testament to INDYCAR. I was 16th with a fast race car. Sometimes in motorsport, if you have a fast race car, you can’t pass, i.e., the European series.
“I genuinely was able to pass, smash under brakes, do this, do that, have the best run of my life, and it’s a testament to the race cars that we build and the packages that we have at INDYCAR. That’s what I have come here racing, the best race in the world.”
McLaughlin entered the weekend 81 points out of the lead. He leaves 58 back. That puts him right back in the mix. He felt so yesterday in fact.
“Yeah, the belief is there absolutely,” he said on Saturday on if he feels like a title could still be won by him. “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.”
So far so good. Plus you have to look at what he says coming up. He had a podium at Iowa last month and that short oval package suits he and his Team Penske organization really well. He was also 4th at Gateway last year which is the site of the next race. For Portland he notes he out qualified his teammates and feels like his car could be even quicker this time around.
He’s been on top of the game on natural road courses in general this season. Then it’s to Laguna Seca to close out the year.
“Really excited for this final run,” he continued. “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.
“Ultimately, top five is a massive goal, and then to win it would be an absolute bonus, but certainly still believe that we’re as good a shot as anyone to win it.
“I guess I’m the outsider. We can risk a little bit more and have a good time doing it. Yeah, I’m looking forward to throwing a few more sort of risky moves and trying to get myself in contention because I’m not unknown to winning championships. I know how to do it. It’s a matter of having a car to be able to do it.
“If we roll up to each track in the next few weeks with the car that we had, we should be in pretty good shape.”
McLaughlin now has three straight top 4 finishes and 6 top 10’s in the last 7. He could have won Sunday though as he led the first 22 laps before pitting for a caution that helped the 4 cars that had already pit prior.
He’d lead the cars on his strategy still until he didn’t. On his final stop, he had a slow one which dropped him to 15th in the running order. They never gave up. McLaughlin quickly went from 15th to 7th and as the cautions kept falling, he kept advancing one restart at a time.
“It was up and down,” said McLaughlin. “We obviously led. We had a fast car. I felt like we were just sort of controlling the race there at the start. I hadn’t even touched my push-to-pass or anything like that. The feel same feel, things were good.
“As we all know, INDYCAR, anything can happen. Alex pitted, and then we had the yellow. He jumped out in front. I was chasing him down. We had a good battle at the front, pulling away from everyone in that second stint.
“But early on in the race I knew I had a car that could pass. I was passing a lot of cars. Especially on restarts. I felt really strong on the brakes, which was a really good thing around here to be confident with and pass people.
“Then we had a bad pit stop, unfortunately. We had a blip on the radar there. Very proud of the boys all day. They were fantastic. We had one costly pit stop that put me back to 16th.”
That moment had McLaughlin driving mad and like a mad man sometimes you thrive. He did just that.
“I was just pissed off, so I just dropped the hammer,” McLaughlin said. “I felt like the seas parted, man, on the restart, and I passed all these cars. Jeez, I was quickly in 8th, and then there was another restart, and I passed two more, and another restart, passed a couple of more. Crap, we could have a go here. Passed one guy on the last one, and I’m, like, come on, Scotty, let’s go.
“Honestly, that was probably, even though it didn’t work out in my favor, one of the most fun races of my career in one of the best race cars I’ve ever had. The car was so good. I had so much fun.”