McLaughlin wins Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland, 5 takeaways from the penultimate race of the INDYCAR season

Scott McLaughlin put on a clinic during Sunday’s remarkably clean race at the Portland International Raceway. The 2nd year Team Penske driver led 104 of 110 laps en route to his 3rd victory of the 2022 NTT INDYCAR Series season and keeps his championship hopes alive heading to next week’s season finale at Laguna Seca.

“The car was phenomenal,” McLaughlin said. “Got a good start. Just for us the whole day, weekend went to plan. We racked up with a car that just needed a massage, like I said, on Friday. I was able to work on myself and then qualifying came around, and we put on pole. We saved a set of tires, reasonably good set of tires, for the Fast Six. We used that and got the pole.

“Then I knew today that my first stint was going to set everything up. That’s exactly what happened.

“I’m not sure what happened behind me. I knew that I couldn’t control what was behind me. All I could do is control what I did. It went to exactly to plan.”

McLaughlin also became the second pole winner of the season to win the race in the end. The last time it occurred, was McLaughlin doing so in the season opener on the streets of St. Pete. It’s the 2nd straight year the pole winner won here as Alex Palou pulled off that feat last September.

However, McLaughlin entered this weekend knowing that the odds were low of him making a comeback for a title, but here he is with a shot anyhow. The 29-year old came into the weekend -54 but leaves -41 after netting his 5th straight top 4 result on the year including 4 of which on the podium.

While the odds are long for him to top the 4 drivers in front of him that are still mathematically eligible, he’s still in the fight.

“It’s just controlling what I can control,” he said. “I can’t do much more than that, and I think I’ve done that the last half year. I just go out there and just drive what I’ve got. I think Detroit for me was a big turnaround. I made a mistake I shouldn’t have made, and that was because I was trying to overdo everything and control everything. It was a big mindset change.

“From then on we’ve been really strong. I think we did some graph out there the last eight or nine races. We were leading the championship by 29 points.

“I think what we’re doing right now is building for a massive year next year. I haven’t finished out of the top five or top four for the last six events or something. I’m feeling really strong. There’s no reason why this can’t be great momentum for next year, and yeah, I feel like I’m driving the best I ever have in my whole career right now.

“I feel really comfortable and comfortable with the team. That’s what you need to tackle championships, especially in the series.

“I have nothing to lose, but at the same time I want to do the best job for my team. I don’t need to be a Kamikaze or anything like that, but I just need to focus on what I’m doing and just dot my Is, cross my Ts, and have a good run.

“Ideal weekend is a pole race win. It’s no doubt that I can go to Laguna Seca and win, and I’m ready to do that.”

This time around, McLaughlin was able to hold off a Penske teammate on the final restart for a win. The last race out in World Wide Technology Raceway, McLaughlin was passed by Josef Newgarden on the final restart after the lengthy rain delay break and never looked back. McLaughlin had to settle for 3rd.

On Sunday, Jimmie Johnson and Rinus VeeKay brought out the lone caution of the day on Lap 84. It bunched the field up and allowed Will Power to restart right behind McLaughlin with 22 to go.

McLaughlin left little doubt. Power had a fight on his hand with Pato O’Ward as the two made contract in Turn 1 but luckily didn’t have to worry about damage.

“I was pretty calm about everything,” McLaughlin said. “I knew I just had to get a reasonable run off the last corner and try and break the toe a little bit going into turn one, but didn’t want to overshot turn one.

“Then I saw in my mirror that Pato and Will were side-by-side. It looked dicey. When I saw that happen, I knew the first lap for me was going to be huge to try and break a gap.

“That’s exactly what happened. I got to 1.6, and that’s sort of how it was the rest of the race. That was really my time that I had to make up. I had to make hay on that lap, and we did.”

Power would pull away but couldn’t get back to McLaughlin and had to settle for his 8th podium of the season and 4th in the last 6 races at that.

In saying that, was there ever any thought of team orders?

“I get it from the standpoint that Scott is in,” said Power of the situation . “I’ve been there, and you don’t want to give up a win.”

What about in the final laps? A Power win would have gained him 10 more points and almost out of reach in Laguna Seca. That would have put him 31 points up instead of 20. Instead, they remained status quo. McLaughlin crossing the finish line in 1st, Power in 2nd. 

“Absolutely. I was on the radio asking for it,” Power noted. Even Scott Dixon expected it to happen. 

“I think I called it with ten laps to go, I was surprised they haven’t swapped yet,” he said. 

“I don’t know. Yeah, 10, 11 points would be great, Power chimed it. “I think we go in there pretty confident that we could get it done. 20, it’s still a big fight, yeah.”

McLaughlin said it was all circumstantial. 

“No, they said that they would — at the end of the day it was completely circumstantial,” he said. “It’s pretty obvious what position you’re in if you do need to give up. I told Will before the race that I would fight him cleanly, and I think that’s all he expected.

“I didn’t know he was asking for team orders, a switch or whatever, but I can’t control that. I just drove my race, and I’m a team player. I’ll do whatever I need to do, but for me I think the best thing we could do was win the race, either car. I think that’s exactly what happened.”

O’Ward had to give up a spot for his contact with Power which allowed Scott Dixon to come from 16th to finish 3rd in his No. 9 Dallara-Honda. He finished 3rd here last year.

O’Ward was 4th while Graham Rahal rounded out the top 5.

Scott McLaughlin at the Portland International Raceway. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

McLaughlin Could Be Dangerous In 2023

While the odds of a championship this season are still tall, I have to look forward and wonder if Scott McLaughlin could be the favorite for the 2023 title instead. McLaughlin is as hot as anyone right now and to be doing so in just 33 career starts, what happens when he sees these tracks a 3rd time around?

McLaughlin won the pole and the race in the season opener in St. Pete. He led 186 laps in a runner-up effort in Race 2 at Texas. He was 6th at Barber on May 1 for 3 top 6 finishes in the first 4 races of the year. That had him 2nd in points heading to Indy.

Unfortunately, that’s where his season took a dip. McLaughlin was 20th in the GMR Grand Prix, 29th in the Indy 500 and 19th a week later in Belle Isle. That dropped him to 10th in points on June 5.

Then came the turning point the other way – Road America. McLaughlin just needed a mistake free weekend. He got one. McLaughlin started 9th and finished 7th that June day. While those results seem ho-hum, they weren’t to the New Zealand native. It was exactly what he needed.

It got his season turned back in the right direction. He’d qualify on the front row the next time out in Mid-Ohio and a day after, he won. That began a stretch of 6 top 4 finishes over the last 8 races including 5 consecutively.

It’s allowed him to storm back from 10th in points to 4th with a shot at a championship next weekend in the season finale. While he needs a lot of help to do so, he can still pull it off.

“I definitely expect it,” Scott Dixon said of McLaughlin’s success. “If you look at his track record, the guy is damn fast, and he has one of the best teams in the business. I think they’ve been very strong this year. They’ve been a step above the whole field.

“All three of them have been super quick and have had the chance to win every race that we’ve gone to this year. It’s great do see another Kiwi coming through.

“I know there’s a lot of talent down there. He came through kind of a strange path as well, but just shows you that it’s possible and hopefully there will be some more talent from Down Under to come.”

McLaughlin said this is all about next year now.

“I think what we’re doing right now is building for a massive year next year,” he noted. “I haven’t finished out of the top five or top four for the last six events or something. I’m feeling really strong. There’s no reason why this can’t be great momentum for next year, and yeah, I feel like I’m driving the best I ever have in my whole career right now.

Josef Newgarden at the Portland International Raceway. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Newgarden On The Wrong End Of Tire Strategy

Josef Newgarden initially qualified his No. 2 Dallara-Chevrolet on the front row in 2nd. His grid penalty dropped him to 8th at the start. They decided to do something different than the leaders at both ends of the race and it could have cost him a championship by doing so.

Team Penske decided to start him on the Firestone primary tires at the beginning. That decision dropped him to 11th during that opening stint. When he went on reds, he charged. Newgarden was up in the top 5 during those stints and was 4th coming to pit road for the final time on Lap 79.

That’s where his race changed again. They went with blacks again. While he was running 4th and looked destined for a top 5 at least, the Rinus VeeKay/Jimmie Johnson incident on Lap 84 cost him too.

Newgarden was ate up on the blacks on the restart and would eventually fall to 9th from 4th. That’s a difference between 32 points for finishing 4th to 24 points for 8h. The 8 point swing and Scott Dixon’s rise took him from 2nd in points to to a tie with Dixon heading to the season finale next weekend in Laguna Seca.

He entered 3 points behind and leaves 23 out.

The main thing for Newgarden is that he’s only had 5 podiums this year, 4 of which being wins. When he’s not winning, he’s not getting podiums or even top 5’s (7).

Scott Dixon at the Portland International Raceway. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Never Count Out Scott Dixon

Qualifying is going to be the reason as to why Scott Dixon won’t win this year’s NTT INDYCAR Series championship. Yes, the speeding penalty for the Indy 500 was a big reason as to why he lost so many points, but qualifying has been their Achilles Heel too.

He started 16th for Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland. It was 8th time he’s started 13th or worse including 5 of the last 6 at that. Remarkably, he rebounded to finish on the podium still in 3rd. Just imagine where he’d be if he started closer to the front.

Dixon moves from 13 points out in 3rd to a tie with Josef Newgarden (-20) in 2nd. While Will Power gained 7 points on him, Dixon has to feel like this is somewhat of a win in the fact that it was only 7 points. It could have been worse when Power was on the front row at the start and Dixon in Row 8.

Dixon now has 15 top 10 finishes in 16 races run this season but his comeback has been predicated by turning those top 10’s into top 5’s. He had just 2 top 5’s in the first 6 races. He’s now had 7 in the last 10 races including Sunday. This was his 2nd straight 3rd place finish at Portland and 3rd top 5 in the last 4 races here. Next up is Laguna Seca to where he was 3rd at in 2019 and tested there this past Monday.

While he was 13th place last year, Power was 26th…

Will Power leads Takuma Sato at the Portland International Raceway. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

How Much Did Testing Schedule Affect This Race?

Team Penske was 1 of 3 teams to test at Portland during the off week. It paid off. They took 2 of the top 3 speeds in the opening practice on Friday, swept the top 3 on the speed chart in Saturday morning’s practice as well as in qualifying, then put 3 cars in the top 4 of the finishing order on Sunday.

How much was tied to that test?

Most of it.

Chip Ganassi Racing did the same thing last year and dominated. They in turn elected to go to Laguna Seca this year as both they and Penske had 1 test date each. They used them at different venues.

Why would Ganassi come back when they had so much data last year to go off of. Not much has changed from 2021 and 2022 so why not focus on the site of the season finale?

Last year, Chip Ganassi Racing qualified 1st, 3rd, 10th and 22nd respectively. They’d finish 1-3-7-20. They hoped that those notes would transfer over.

Penske knew they wanted to keep their points advantage and even lengthen it so they came here a couple of Friday’s ago. It paid off.

If not for that lone caution of the day, Pato O’Ward was going to be the only one within 16 seconds of them at the end.

Ganassi had 3 of their 4 cars eliminated in the first round of qualifying which is a huge culprit to where they sit in points now. Only Alex Palou snuck through to the Fast 6 and qualified 5th but started 4th due to Josef Newgarden’s grid penalty.

Dixon rolled off 16th. Marcus Ericsson would come from 18th. Jimmie Johnson started 23rd. While it’s easy to point to Penske’s test and Ganassi’s not as why this weekend looked like it did, I don’t know if the test is the true story on why Ganassi struggled. They’ve struggled in qualifying all year.

This was the 5th time in the last 6 races Ericsson has started 12th or worse. It’s also the 9th time in 16 races this season. Only 3 times has he started in Row 3 or better. He finished in the top 2 in 2 of those 3.

Dixon now has started 13th or worse in 5 of the last 6 races too including 8 times all year. That’s not ideal to get the job done.

Meanwhile, Palou has 10 top 7 starting spots in his No. 10 Dallara-Honda so that’s why I feel like this isn’t all dictated by the lack of testing.

It’s a combo of both.

However, does Ganassi gain the advantage back since they tested at Laguna Seca this past week while Penske didn’t?

Slow Stops, Incident With Rossi Costs Lundgaard A Potential ROY Award

Christian Lundgaard had a great weekend going before he hit pit road for the first time of Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland. He moved up to 2nd on the clean opening lap and settled into what was going to be a potential podium finish. Unfortunately, 2 slower stops cost him not only a podium finish, but a top 10 and a possible Rookie of the Year crown as well.

Lundgaard entered the final pit stop in 4th place. They had a long stop which dropped him down to 11th. He battled back up to 8th before an incident with Alexander Rossi in the end dropped him off course in Turn 1 and into a sign. The sign never came off and he had to pit to remove it. Lundgaard would finish 21st as a result.

Meanwhile, David Malukas started 10th and brought his No. 18 Dallara-Honda home in 14th. The 11 point cushion Lundgaard had on Malukas entering the weekend now drops to 5 heading to the season finale.

Of Note: Graham Rahal Ending The Season Strong

Graham Rahal earned his 2nd top 5 finish of the season on Sunday. Rahal was also 8th and 6th in the opening 2 practice sessions to the weekend and qualified his No. 15 Dallara-Honda in 11th. He now has has 5 top 10 finishes in his last 8 starts to the season in comparison to 3 in first 7. The Ohio native also has 4 top 10’s in the last 6 at that. In terms of finishes, he has 5 top 10’s in the last 7 races.

Top Stats For Portland

  • 11 of the last 12 races at Portland have been won from a top 3 starter.
  • 22 of the last 24 races here in Portland were won from a starter in the top 5 at that.

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