Scott McLaughlin was quickest off the truck here at the Barber Motorsports Park in being on top of the speed charts in Friday’s NTT INDYCAR SERIES practice session. While he didn’t get pole on Saturday, the Team Penske driver utilized a great strategy in Sunday’s Children’s of Alabama Indy Grand Prix to score his fourth career win at the fourth different track.
Fitting enough that the massive golf fan in the INDYCAR paddock won on the picturesque 2.3-mile road course that gets compared annually to the Masters in Augusta, Georgia.
How He Did It
Team Penske committed for the three-stop strategy on Sunday with all three drivers starting on the Firestone primary tires. The top three drivers were planning on the two stopper with going on the Firestone alternates at the beginning. Last year, the top stop was the way to go. The balance is, in order to make the three stopper work, you need a caution.
In the previous 12 years, this race had never gone caution free. So, it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when, the caution falls and if it throws a wrench into the strategy.
That’s exactly what happened on Sunday.
McLaughlin pit for the first time on Lap 15. Romain Grosjean led the first 30 laps and hit pit lane on his strategy on Lap 30. That handed the lead over to McLaughlin’s Penske teammate of Josef Newgarden. The thing is, Newgarden had some damage on his car and didn’t have the pace to win. Then came the Lap 39 caution for Sting Ray Robb stalling in Turn 9. Last year, the lone caution flew on Lap 32, but it was just two laps after the opening pit sequence ended so it didn’t hurt those on the two stop strategy.
This year, Newgarden had just pit on Lap 37. McLaughlin pit on Lap 38. The three stoppers pit where the two stoppers didn’t at that point.
It flipped the strategy in favor of the three stoppers now.
Grosjean was back in the lead on Lap 39 but McLaughlin was in second. It was a battle for the win among both. Each had one stop left but Grosjean would obviously have to pit way sooner than McLaughlin. Who would win out?
Grosjean pit on Lap 59. McLaughlin pit on Lap 62.
McLaughlin would sneak by Grosjean for the lead on pit exit but Grosjean made a hell of a move in the final corner of that out lap to get the lead back.
The problem was, Grosjean had no push to passes left. McLaughlin had plenty. He pushed Grosjean into trouble as the Andretti Autosport driver went far enough wide in Turn 5 on Lap 71 to allow McLaughlin by.
McLaughlin would never look back in leading the final 19 laps en route to his first win of the season. He jumped up six spots in the standings in going from 10th (-42) in points to fourth (-11).
Here are my top five takeaways from the thrilling race.
Grosjean Runner-Up Again…Still A Good Points Day
Romain Grosjean said on Saturday that while he wanted to get his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES win out of the way, he was also good with thinking big picture too.
“I think we want to be a championship contender at the end of the year, so we used two mulligans in the season, so we’ve got to be here every race,” he said on Saturday after scoring his third career pole.
“We’ve shown that the pace is there, which helps a lot to be at the front, but 100 percent want to score some points and finish the race. If it’s first, second, third, fourth, fifth, we don’t know, but what we know is we need to keep scoring points and be consistent for the championship.”
Still, when you lead the most laps (57 of 90) and not win in the end, it’s most certainly dejecting. Grosjean did everything right. There was nothing he could have done differently.
When you start on the pole, you have to go on the two-stop strategy. This race has never gone caution free and with that being the preferred strategy, it’s hard to plan for the unexpected. So, off Grosjean went. He led the first 30 laps before hitting pit lane for the first time.
The lead came back to him when the Penske duo of Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin pit on back-to-back laps from 37-38. The problem is, the lone caution fell for Sting Ray Robb stalling in Turn 9 on Lap 39. While Grosjean was in first, by McLaughlin pitting before the caution came out, he ended up back one spot behind Grosjean in second.
The strategy play swapped in favor of the three stoppers now.
Grosjean would hold off McLaughlin on the restart and remain in the lead for the 21 laps stint before he hit pit lane for his final time on Lap 60. McLaughlin pit three laps later. While McLaughlin was out front when exiting pit lane, Grosjean got by him on the final turn of the out lap.
However, Grosjean had no Push to Passes left. He was a lame duck and lost the lead on Lap 71 to him in Turn 5. His race winning chances were essentially over at this point forward. Now, he had to hold off a hard charging Will Power instead.
Power went from 10 seconds out to Grosjean’s tail in the end but Grosjean was able to hold him off for his fifth runner-up finish in 34 starts. Unfortunately, he’s winless in those 34 starts too and 0-for-3 when starting on the pole.
“You know what, you need to do everything perfect to win,” Grosjean said. “Today we didn’t have the right strategy. It is what it is. Control what you can control. That’s what we did.
“We executed very well this weekend. We had a fast car. Got pole. 20 seconds ahead of the two stoppers on the race finish. That shows how fast we were. We just didn’t have the right strategy today, so…
“I’d say we were not too bad. Put me P4 in the championship. Big picture, yes I wanted to win today, it hurts to not do it. We have a lot more occasions. If I can win Indy and the 500, it would be good.
“I think when your team boss comes to see you and says that’s probably the best drive he’s seen in INDYCAR, he’s been around for a long time, Michael, you take that as a win.
“Very proud of my engineer, my mechanics. We made P1, so we beat them on the back foot and got them with pole. We had a fast car today. With the fuel number we had to hit doing the lap times we were doing, pretty amazing. I’m really happy with that.
“I saw Will coming, but I knew it would be at the end of his red tire life. When he was in dirty air, it would be hard for him. Try not to make any mistakes and keep enough fuel for the last two laps.”
Still, running like this will make the win come soon enough. He led 31 of 71 laps in the season opener at St. Pete and if not for a late race incident on Lap 71 of 100 on those Florida streets with Scott McLaughlin while battling for the lead, he would have won that day.
Texas he crashed while running inside the top five with two laps remaining. Long Beach and now Barber, he finished runner-up in both.
Up next is the IMS road course to where he finished runner-up in both races in 2021. That was with Dale Coyne Racing. Can he recapture that magic with his second go around with Andretti?
So far, he has this season as a whole which has made him much more happier in the car.
3 top five finishes, seven top 10’s, three laps led last year. He did so in 17 races. A year prior, with Dale Coyne Racing, he had four top five finishes, six top 10’s and 53 laps led in four less tries.
“Last year joined a team to try to win races, score poles and win the championship,” Grosjean admitted on Saturday. “I was struggling with the balance. I just couldn’t get it to do what I wanted. Of course that plays a big role in your personality or the way you look. It’s always nice to be on pole. You smile.
“Yeah, what we do is a passion job, and at the end it has a big effect on the way we are. But no, there’s two personalities, there’s the driver and there’s the dad back home, and those two lives are kind of separated.
“I think we’ve shown that we’ve got a very strong baseline, very strong package this year on street course and road course, and oval is getting good, as well.
“I think we definitely found something at the end of last year, winter testing, and yeah, I just knew today that we had the car to fight for pole.
“I think as a driver, you feel it very quickly. If you can drive the car fast, even if you make small mistakes, the lap time is still there, so you kind of know if you put it all together, it’s going to be good. Yes, we’ve got good momentum, we’ve got a good group of people, so it’s a car that they — I’ve got all the strengths of the car I loved in ’21 with all the strengths of the car I loved in ’22, and we’ve kind of put it together and that’s worked well for us.”
Now so, he’s back to his happy place and the results are showing because of it. He comes to Indy just 15 points out of the lead in fifth.
“It’s done today, so on to the next one, Indy GP. I was fast in ’21. Last year was a bit more difficult,” he says.
“The two races we finished this year twice second. We’re knocking on the door, and eventually the door will open. So I am not too worried. As Will said, it’s super competitive, it’s tough. We have to push every single lap hard. Yeah, today they did a better job on the strategy.”
Will Power’s Podium Feels Like A Win
Will Power mentioned on Saturday that the pace of his No. 12 Dallara-Chevrolet was just down in comparison to the main contenders here this weekend at the Barber Motorsports Park. That’s because their engine was close to mileaging out. They’d receive a new Chevrolet engine for the Indy road course in a couple of weeks.
This weekend, he had to just get by.
He qualified 11th on Saturday. A top-10 finish would have been a good day. A Top-5 finish a great day. A podium? That’s a win.
Power gained eight positions to finish third in Sunday’s Children’s of Alabama Indy Grand Prix to score his third consecutive top four finish here. This was his 95th career podium in 272 starts and third top seven finish in the first four races to his championship defense season. That has him in striking distance to another championship as he enters the Month of May seventh in points (-26).
“Yeah, look, if I finished fifth I would have been happy, or sixth, even eighth honestly. There are days that it’s a bad day that get you,” he said.
“I would say in the start of my season, it’s just been pretty good. I wouldn’t say it’s a bad start of the season at all. I’ve been happy with all the results except for one, which was Texas. You can’t win ’em all. In fact, it’s very difficult to win one or two in a season. You just have to keep racking up good finishes.”
The strategy by Team Penske on Sunday was a pristine as their cars. Power pit on Lap 15 then on Lap 38 right before that lone caution. He’d pit for the final time on Lap 66 to run the final 24 laps on the Firestone alternates.
It paid off.
By doing the overcut, he moved up to third after the pit sequence, 10 seconds back of the lead. He nearly chopped all 10 seconds off by finish on Grosjean’s bumper for the podium.
“Yeah, in the first stint when I saw everyone saving fuel about eight to 10 laps in, I said to the guys, Maybe we should switch to a three-stopper here,” said Power. “Do you want me to push? It was the best thing to do at that time.
“Yeah, it worked out well. We had a very fast car. Any time we had clear air, we were pumping out some seriously quick times. During that last sequence is where we gained a ton of track position. I was able to do 67s in the last few laps.
“Yeah, using the tires up. As soon as I started getting Romain’s dirty air, he was doing a really good job of sort of saving fuel and also getting big exits, not making mistakes. I did everything I could to get to him and I just couldn’t get there.”
This has him with massive momentum heading to the biggest month of the year at Indy.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s good for the whole group on the car,” Power admitted. “Obviously mentally for yourself, it’s a very positive thing. Everything’s heading in the right direction.
“Indy is a very, very different animal in terms of the 500. Obviously you have the Grand Prix before that. But, yeah, the 500 is a very standalone, tough, unique event. Yeah, we’re hoping to be in the game this year. We’ve been pretty disappointed with the performance the last few years.
“We’ll wait and see. You don’t say anything. We’ve done a lot of work.”
Great Weekend For Lundgaard
Christian Lundgaard capped a very impressive weekend on Sunday at Barber. While he finished where he started (6th), it was still a great momentum building weekend heading into the most important part of the month.
Lungdaard was sixth and seventh respectively in the pair of practices while being sixth as well in qualifying. Both of his teammates failed to advance out of the opening round.
Graham Rahal started 19th in his No. 15 Dallara-Honda while Jack Harvey rolled off 24th. Rahal was 12th and 16th in practice with Harvey being 20th and 21st.
Lundgaard carried the banner for the RLL camp and heading to arguably his best track on the IMS road course next.
Great Rebounds For Marcus Armstrong and Felix Rosenqvist
Marcus Armstrong was penalized on Saturday for blocking on his qualifying lap. Instead of starting 14th, he’d roll off 26th. That’s a tough ask for a rookie driver making just his third career NTT INDYCAR SERIES start.
On the opening lap of Sunday’s race, Felix Rosenqvist joined Armstrong in the back. He started eighth but made contact with Josef Newgarden in Turn 1 just after the green flag fell and spun off course. He fell to the back.
Both ended up back towards the front when it was all said and done.
Rosenqvist rebounded to finish ninth in his No. 6 Dallara-Chevrolet while Armstrong gained 15 spots to finish 11th in his No. 11 Dallara-Honda earning him the hard charger award. He’s finished in the top 11 in all three races that he’s run and heading to Indy ecstatic.
Strategy Tightens Up Points
Marcus Ericsson not making it out of the opening round of qualifying on Saturday and Alex Palou (2nd) and Pato O’Ward (3rd) making up 2 of the top 3 starting positions could have drastically shifted the points into the latter two’s favor. Unfortunately for them, the Lap 39 caution and the three stop strategy winning out didn’t allow them to leap frog Ericsson.
In fact, that strategy tightened the points up even more.
Coming into the day, the gap from first to seventh was 39. Leaving, it’s down to 26.
Scott McLaughlin won and went from 42 points back in 10th to 11 points back in fourth. Will Power was tied with McLaughlin in points back (-42) but improved to seventh but is 26 back now. Romain Grosjean was the meat in their sandwich with a runner-up finish and went from 39 points back to 15 arrears in fifth.
O’Ward and Palou finished fourth and fifth respectively but cut a chunk out of the deficit still. O’Ward remains second in points and gained 12 points in the process in going from -15 to -3. Palou went from -19 to -9.
Scott Dixon entered -38 in 6th place in points and is -32 in eighth now after a seventh-place result on Sunday. That’s how tight these standings are. To gain six points after a top 10 finish but fall two spots in points is proof.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Results Sunday of the Children’s of Alabama Indy Grand Prix NTT INDYCAR SERIES event on the 2.3-mile Barber Motorsports Park, with order of finish, starting position in parentheses, driver, chassis-engine, laps completed and reason out (if any):
1. (4) Scott McLaughlin, Chevrolet, 90, Running
2. (1) Romain Grosjean, Honda, 90, Running
3. (11) Will Power, Chevrolet, 90, Running
4. (3) Pato O’Ward, Chevrolet, 90, Running
5. (2) Alex Palou, Honda, 90, Running
6. (6) Christian Lundgaard, Honda, 90, Running
7. (5) Scott Dixon, Honda, 90, Running
8. (10) Alexander Rossi, Chevrolet, 90, Running
9. (8) Felix Rosenqvist, Chevrolet, 90, Running
10. (13) Marcus Ericsson, Honda, 90, Running
11. (26) Marcus Armstrong, Honda, 90, Running
12. (12) Kyle Kirkwood, Honda, 90, Running
13. (15) Callum Ilott, Chevrolet, 90, Running
14. (14) Colton Herta, Honda, 90, Running
15. (7) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 90, Running
16. (9) Rinus VeeKay, Chevrolet, 90, Running
17. (19) Graham Rahal, Honda, 90, Running
18. (16) Simon Pagenaud, Honda, 90, Running
19. (17) David Malukas, Honda, 90, Running
20. (27) Santino Ferrucci, Chevrolet, 90, Running
21. (21) Helio Castroneves, Honda, 90, Running
22. (25) Benjamin Pedersen, Chevrolet, 90, Running
23. (18) Devlin DeFrancesco, Honda, 90, Running
24. (24) Jack Harvey, Honda, 90, Running
25. (20) Conor Daly, Chevrolet, 90, Running
26. (22) Agustin Canapino, Chevrolet, 90, Running
27. (23) Sting Ray Robb, Honda, 36, Mechanical
Winner’s average speed: 115.019 mph
Time of Race: 1:47:58.9401
Margin of victory: 1.7854 seconds
Cautions: 1 for 3 laps
Lead changes: 7 among 4 drivers
Grosjean, Romain 1 – 30
Newgarden, Josef 31 – 36
McLaughlin, Scott 37 – 38
Grosjean, Romain 39 – 59
McLaughlin, Scott 60 – 62
Power, Will 63 – 65
Grosjean, Romain 66 – 71
McLaughlin, Scott 72 – 90
NTT INDYCAR SERIES Point Standings: Ericsson 130, O’Ward 127, Palou 121, McLaughlin 119, Grosjean 115, Newgarden 105, Power 104, Dixon 98, Kirkwood 92, Herta 85, Ilott 80, Lundgaard 77, Malukas 74, Rossi 72, Rosenqvist 66, Rahal 65, Armstrong 62, Canapino 47, VeeKay 47, Pagenaud 45, Castroneves 45, Ferrucci 44, Harvey 43, Daly 38, Robb 37, Pedersen 34, DeFrancesco 33, Ed Carpenter 17, Takuma Sato 5