A championship is a longshot, but McLaughlin building plenty of momentum for the 2023 season

INDIANAPOLIS — Scott McLaughlin is still in the NTT INDYCAR Series championship race. The 2nd year Team Penske driver enters Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network) 1 of 7 drivers still mathematically eligible to hoist the Astor Cup championship trophy next Sunday. However, he also knows though that his chances of being that 1 are slim.

McLaughlin is 6th in points. He trails teammate Will Power by 54 points. Anyone more than 54 points out leaving Sunday’s race will be eliminated from championship contention.

Translation?

McLaughlin has to finish ahead of Power. He also likely needs to finish ahead of his other teammate in Josef Newgarden who’s 51 points clear of McLaughlin himself. Even if he does so, can he really make up 54 points on his teammates in a span of 2 races?

“We’re still in the fight, which is the main thing,” he told me in St. Louis. “Two races to go, who knows what will happen. Still feeling like we’re just going to attack these next two races with nothing to lose, have a bit of fun.”

Fun is something he wasn’t having last year. It was McLaughlin 1st full-time foray into one of the most difficult racing series in the world. He found out first hand.

The 29-year old won 3 straight Super Cars championships overseas including 56 trips to victory lane in the process. That was home. The New Zealand native grew up racing over there. Penske had an offer to challenge him.

Come to the United States.

McLaughlin, in the middle of a pandemic, left and made his debut on the streets of St. Pete in October 2020. He did so with only his wife leaving his family back home.

2021 was challenging though.

“Yeah, I came over three times,” he said. “I had won straight back-to-back championships, and I know I’m a rookie and I wasn’t kidding myself, but at the same time it’s hard to go from the mindset of, okay, win every week and that’s all that matters, nothing less, to going, hey, I’d love a top 15. I don’t work like that. I’m a competitive bloke. I want to win. I want to get poles. I want to dominate races and not even worry about things.

“It definitely took — I did that for four years, and then coming here and was basically — it just mucks with your head, and you’ve got to be realistic about things, and I put a lot of pressure on myself, like why isn’t this happening, why am I sucking in qualifying when I’m good? I’ve done that before, I’ve proved that.

“It’s a mind game, man, and you’ve got to be on top of it. You’ve got to just believe in yourself.

“As a professional sportsman you go through highs and lows. You’re getting paid good money and you’re running 15th, it’s not good. For me it’s not good. I drive for the biggest motorsport team in the world. For me it wasn’t good.”

McLaughlin though started 2022 off with a bang. He earned his 1st career pole in the season opener on the same streets of St. Pete that he made his debut. He’d win one day later which was emotionally huge for him. However, he still missed his parents.

They came in May just in time for the Indianapolis 500. At that time, McLaughlin was trending back to a path of where he just came out of.

He finished 20th in the GMR Grand Prix, 29th in the Indy 500 and then 19th a week later on the streets of Belle Isle. Luckily, he had his wife and parents here to turn this back around.

It started with a 7th place run in Road America then a win the next time out back on July 3 at Mid-Ohio. This was the first race he won with his parents here to witness it.

McLaughlin has been solid ever since. In fact, he has 4 straight top 4 finishes on the year now and hoping to end the year with this momentum.

His 3rd place finish at Gateway would have felt like a win last year. This one gutted him. That’s how far he’s came in a span of 12 months.

“I’m absolutely disappointed,” he said. “Look, the main thing was that Penske won. For our team and Roger, it was a big deal. He just wanted us to get home. That was a big sort of talking point for us before the restart as well.

“Look, like I said, I’m disappointed with third, which is a great thing. I’m feeling like we’re really building for the end of the year but also start of next year.”

Even if a championship doesn’t bode out of the 2022 season, he’s excited about his future in a way now that he didn’t at this time last season. 

2022 has been a year that’s revitalized the New Zealand native.

“Yeah. Starting to learn who I am now,” he quipped. “I’ve just had good teammates, got a good team, good cars, for me to be able to extract the speed and be really comfortable with it and learn quickly. I’m very thankful for that.

“Yeah, I think off-track life is a lot easier. I feel a lot more at home in the INDYCAR SERIES. Know a lot more faces. It doesn’t feel as unknown, even in the media, sponsorship land, even the Penske organization. It was a lot to take on last year. I’m very happy with where we’re at right now.”

Still, he has 10 top 10’s on the season, 7 of which in the last 8 races. He’s had more top 10’s this season (10) in 15 races than he had in his previous 17 starts (5). He only had a pair of top 5’s last year but 7 this. He also had 1 podium in 2021 but 6 this time around.

On top of that, he went from 5 laps led last year to 329 this year.

The sky is the limit for him.

“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.

“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 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.”

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