NASHVILLE, Tenn — Scott McLaughlin called it a bucket list moment to be challenging Scott Dixon for the win during Sunday’s Music City Grand Prix. A handful laps prior, his vibe struck a different chord. He went from pleased to pissed to awestruck in a span of 20 or so laps.
McLaughlin hails from New Zealand. Same as Dixon. He came to the NTT IndyCar Series idolizing Dixon. The fact that he was even in the position that he was in didn’t seem possible 20 laps earlier.
Now, here he was trying to formulate a plan under the red flag conditions in hopes of passing Dixon’s No. 9 Dallara-Honda for the win. How each got to this position was nothing short of amazing.
Dixon started 14th and moved up to 11th before his first pit stop on Lap 23.
That’s after the moment for the first caution of the race that sent this race on an upward spiral. The opening 21 laps were led from pole sitter McLaughlin. Then came the 2nd caution of the race on Lap 22 for Helio Castroneves’ incident in Turn 3.
McLaughlin led those who’d not yet hit pit lane down for service. Dixon was one of them. Alex Palou however had just pit. Simon Pagenaud, David Malukas Kyle Kirkwood and Jimmie Johnson had also pit before the yellow and would cycle with Palou to the top 5.
On the Lap 25 restart, we’d see another caution when Graham Rahal ran into the back of Pato O’Ward sparking the 3rd caution of an incident marred race. Dixon though had some damage when he ran into the back of Dalton Kellett damaging the floor of his No. 9 Dallara-Honda as well as prompting a flat tire.
The car had to be fixed multiple times under the caution break sending Dixon now to the back for the next restart.
He’d pit for the final time early on Lap 50. It was fuel conservation mode. Then came a caution 2 laps later. The race just fell into Dixon’s lap.
“That was wild,” said Dixon. “It was a wild day. We had a good start. I thought things were going well, and then we came in for the first stop, and the air jacks failed or the hose failed. We went all the way to the back and got into the chaos in turn five or six and just got rolled over the back and hit pretty hard.
“Actually, we couldn’t get the wheel off because it was stuck on the brake caliper. Took the team a lot of time to get that off, but then it ripped a bunch of the underfloor off of the car as well and all the strakes.
“The car was bent and broken, but for us I think strategy-wise to take no tires on that last stop was probably the key. We were able to jump a couple and have enough fuel to get towards the end, and to the end, but it was very difficult to drive.”
He was holding off Christian Lundgaard on 2 of the final 3 restarts. Lundgaard was passed by McLaughlin for 2nd on the 2nd to last restart.
Now it was Kiwi vs Kiwi but for McLaughlin, it was a big move after big move because he was pissed off.
The pit sequence cautions and a slow final stop on Lap 54 dropped him down to 16th. He didn’t stay there long.
“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.”
After he got by Lundgaard a yellow came out. Then the red.
“I’m a racer, man, and I hate seeing races go out under caution,” Dixon said. “I had the same situation today. We were watching the EMSO a race. I’m like, oh, this sucks, because you just watch it count down, and nothing happens.
“I know what they’re trying to do. I respect it as long as it’s the same every time. And over time, if you are in the right place or the wrong place, it will play itself out.
“I think all the drivers just ask for consistency, and that was very true from what we saw here last year to some other races that we’ve seen. I think that’s what the fans want to see.
“Ultimately, the last lap and a half for me was just so tough. That’s how it should be.”
After the 11-minute and 54-second red flag, off the went from the pits. Could McLaughlin pull off a thriller?
“I actually got myself into a bit of trouble on the restart,” Dixon admitted. “I kind of preloaded the overtake, and as soon as I took off, it just spun the wheels, and I think — I have to look back at it, but I remember just looking at the left wall. I was kind of sideways, and I’m like, oh, my God, I just lost the lead here. But he must have had a similar issue where he couldn’t put the power down.
“Yeah, it’s kind of fun that they add that with two laps to go. It’s open for overtake. Honestly, I think I had almost 50. He had 60 maybe. You can’t really use that here on a lap and a half, two laps to go.
“It definitely added to pushing some buttons and trying to hold that power to the ground, but definitely made it fun. I think I used almost all I had left.”
McLaughlin rode in Dixon’s clutches for the final 4.2 miles of the race (2 laps) and nearly made the winning pass on the front stretch for the win. He lost by .1067-seconds.
He says that if this race went 1 more lap he feels like he would have passed 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.”
Dixon agreed. He said he was happy with all the late cautions because he didn’t want a lot of green flag laps to the finish.
“The car just had no grip,” quipped Dixon. “Each time we had a restart, I was just praying for another accident. Some of those came. Some of them didn’t. Another lap with McLaughlin would have been extremely tough to hold him off. He was just super fast, and I think just in a better situation.”
Still, McLaughlin was honored to even be in this position with Dixon.
“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.”