LEEDS, Ala — Scott McLaughlin feels good about his No. 3 Dallara-Chevrolet after a wild 75-minute opening NTT INDYCAR SERIES practice session at the Barber Motorsports Park on Friday. The Team Penske driver says that not only does his car feel good on the Firestone primary tires, but it also feels just as good on the Firestone alternate ones as well including a late lap of 1:06.6610-seconds to earn P1 honors in session 1.
“Really good day,” McLaughlin said. “I feel like we had a really good car. Good Ranchers the first time on the car this weekend.
“Starting with a P1 is obviously good. It’s practice. For everyone to have a go on blacks, then reds, everyone is showing their cards a little bit.
“I feel good. I feel like my road course package is really strong. We won Portland, and have been really strong here, in road courses in the past, even at Laguna.
“I think first road course of the year, so really excited to be back on one.”
That’s a bad sign for the field.
When quick, McLaughlin typically wins. He won three times a year ago. All three times he started on the front row including 2 of the 3 from the pole. With three different pole winners from three different teams this season, McLaughlin and his Team Penske team can keep that trend going with a potential banner weekend the rest of the way.
He qualified fourth and finished sixth last year on the 2.3-mile scenic road course.
“This race, it’s very important I think for me especially,” McLaughlin said on if this race gets overshadowed a bit in being the appetizer to the Month of May. “At the end of the day we’re showing good speed, but we haven’t capitalized. Our bad races haven’t been bad, bad. We have been edging on a top 10 if not a top 10.
“I really want to win this race. It would really set us up well for the month, give us a lot of confidence. Not that we’re lacking any, but it would be a nice little pep.
“I always circle this one on the calendar as a very important one. Get out of here with some solid points and look to what is going to be a pretty long month of May.”
McLaughlin led Colton Herta (1:06.8193-seconds) in a session that featured three separate red flags for incidents. He says the stoppages make it tough to keep your confidence up at a place like this one.
“Its hard because this track is high commitment, you need confidence,” he says. “This place is hard on the neck because of the high speed.
“I really put Barber down to it’s one of the most committed tracks I’ve ever driven on. From a perspective of like racing Supercars at Bathurst, the commitment, laps there, this is a similar level in terms of committing to a lap, trusting what you have underneath you, even if you don’t understand what’s underneath you as well, which is the beauty of INDYCAR.
“Regardless if I’ve done a heap of laps here in testing or not, it’s all about flow, getting into a rhythm. It’s a bit like playing a guitar or drums, whatever, you want to get into a rhythm of hitting your laps, learning how long the tires take to warm up. It’s hard when they stop and start like that.
“I was a bit worried there in the middle session. I thought we left our run too late. We did know our car was going to be reasonable, we just wanted to make sure we used the track at the right time. Thankfully came through.
“It’s tough. I think it would be harder if we hadn’t done the test day here about a month ago.”
The first incident occurred at 3:05 p.m. locally when Helio Castroneves got off course and into the Turn 9 barriers.
The second happened when Romain Grosjean stalled in the same corner 15 minutes later when his engine of the No. 28 Dallara-Honda expired. Grosjean said that they were going to change engines after the race weekend due to mileage but with a premature ending to it, they’ll be hampered by the fact later in the season.
The final red flag happened with 13 minutes left when Will Power got off course and made contact with the Turn 2 barriers. Luckily for him, the damage was minimal. He drove back to pit lane and after a few changes, Power shot up to third on the speed charts in the end with a lap of 1:06.8985-seconds in his No. 12 Dallara-Chevrolet.
Prior to last year, Power had 8 front row starting spots here in 11 tries including 9 Fast 6’s. 10 of his 11 starts were 7th or better.
Power was .0792-seconds behind Herta with Herta once again being towards the top of the speed charts here. He was quickest in this session a year ago and third in session 2.
Scott Dixon (1:06.9345-seconds) was fourth in his No. 9 Dallara-Honda while his teammate Marcus Ericsson (1:06.9994-seconds) rounded out the top five.
Much Better Start For Penske Camp
Team Penske has left these 2 Friday practice sessions this year playing from behind. They were 8th (Power), 10th (McLaughlin) and 22nd (Newgarden) in the opening practice in St. Pete. For the Saturday practice that weekend, they were 2nd (McLaughlin), 15th (Newgarden) and 19th (Power) respectively. They looked similar in qualifying.
Newgarden qualified 14th. Power was 10th and McLaughlin 6th.
In the Long Beach opening practice session, they were only 13th (McLaughlin), 14th (Newgarden) and 15th (Power).
This time in Barber, they are in a much closer zone. All three drivers were in the top 7 with McLaughlin (1st), Power (3rd) and Newgarden (7th).
Team Penske has 8 wins on these types of tracks. They have the most Barber wins (6) as well. However, each of those 6 came in the first nine years of this event. They’re 0-for-3 since with their last triumph coming on April 23, 2018.
Great Start To The Weekend For RLL
RLL is in the same boat as Penske in the fact of a better Friday. In St. Pete, they were 17th (Jack Harvey), 25th (Christian Lundgaard) and 26th (Graham Rahal). In Texas, they had the bottom three speeds with Rahal (26th), Harvey (27th) and Lundgaard (28th). At Long Beach, all three were better than 17th.
Lundgaard was 10th, Harvey in 12th and Rahal at 16th.
At Barber, they were strong again with Lundgaard in 6th, Rahal in 12th and Harvey in 20th.
“We have not had a weekend this year, in my opinion, where we started the weekend off quick enough, just competitive enough, feeling great,” Lundgaard said.
“I did today. I went straight out and I felt great. Obviously having had the test here helped. I remember you were here, as well. We were competitive there, as well. So it means a lot now, but we got to keep that going into qualifying tomorrow.”
Their speed didn’t come without conflict.
Rahal was on a hot lap and Harvey came down in front of him slowing him up. Rahal showed his displeasures. I have a feeling Harvey wasn’t told that Rahal was coming which the miscommunication cost them here.
Still, it’s a great start to the weekend and I’m curious if they can continue this onto Saturday and into Sunday as well.
Big Teams Up Front
Among the top 11 speeds, 10 of them belonged to either Penske (1st, 3rd, 7th), Ganassi (4th, 5th, 10th), Andretti (2nd) or Arrow McLaren Racing (8th, 11th). The only one not was Simon Pagenaud with Meyer Shank Racing in 9th.
Andretti Vastly Different Friday This Year Than Last
As you notice, among the big teams up front, Andretti was the one with the least representatives in it. Ganassi and Penske each had three drivers a piece. McLaren had two. That’s eight of 11. Andretti had one. That’s vastly different than where they were in the opening practice last year.
They had 3 of the top 4 speeds a year ago. This year, they went 2-16-19-22 which includes Grosjean’s engine failure. The winner of the last race on the streets of Long Beach, Kyle Kirkwood, was a disappointing 22nd. That’s exactly where he finished in his rookie start here with AJ Foyt Racing a year ago.
Can Dixon Get 1st Barber Win?
Scott Dixon comes to the Barber Motorsports Park looking for a rare stat that he’s not yet accomplished. The Barber Motorsports Park is a track that he’s never won at before. He’s 0-for-12 to be exact. He’s also never won at St. Pete (0-for-19), Iowa (0-for-17), Portland (0-for-6) or Laguna Seca (0-for-5) either.
Can he get another track off the list?
He was strong on Friday in being fourth fastest (1:06.9345-seconds) on the speed charts.
It’s not like Dixon hasn’t been close at Barber though. In 12 career starts, he has 9 podiums. 6 of those 9 podiums were runner-ups. He has two second place finishes in his last five Barber starts at that with a third place run in 2021 and fifth last year as two of the outliers.
Does 2023 = a win?
Dixon comes in mad with contact from Pato O’Ward in Long Beach relegating him to a last place finish (27th). That has dropped him down to sixth in points at -38. He was third (-15) entering.
Meanwhile, Dixon has also won at 11 venues currently not on the schedule too: COTA, Motegi, Houston, Kansas, Edmonton, Homestead, Richmond, Nashville, Kentucky, Watkins Glen, Pikes Peak and Nazareth. Can he finally snag a Barber win on Sunday?
Must See It
Pato O’Ward had a rather tense excursion late in the session when he got off course and took out a few marketing signs in the process.
12-1 pm ET: Practice 2 (Peacock, INDYCAR Radio Network).