Will Power felt like a win was had in Sunday’s NTT INDYCAR SERIES race at the Barber Motorsports Park. He left with his 95th trophy, however it was a third-place trophy and not the bigger race winning one. That hardware went to Power’s Team Penske teammate of Scott McLaughlin.
On a 2.3-mile track that is among the paddock’s favorite, Team Penske used strategy to prevail in the fourth race of the season and the appetizer to the Month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“I think it’s just the product of INDYCAR,” McLaughlin said. “But play your cards how you’re dealt. Today could have been a two-stop, or a three-stop like we did. We thought it was a three-stop was the right way.
“We have the opportunity as a series to change that up. That’s why it makes it so exciting. I think the addition of push to pass, stuff going on as well, is a good thing. It’s such a good racing product. I don’t know how to explain it. I think we’re very lucky with the level of drivers, how hard we can race the cars. The cars are very strong.
“The difference in compounds. The tires are really good. Firestone built a really good tire that’s able to race in hard conditions all the time.
“Yeah, I don’t know. I just think it’s INDYCAR. It’s not a about winning every race in this racing series, it’s all about just being consistent in the championship. That’s exactly what our goal has sort of been since the start.”
Second place finisher, Romain Grosjean, agreed.
“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.”
Grosjean and the entire top three of the starting lineup elected to start their races on the alternate tires. By doing so, they and 17 of the 27 starters elected to go with the two-stop strategy. It’s the most comfortable one but one that the drivers don’t necessarily favor.
“It’s probably the most frustrating type of racing,” Grosjean admitted. “You know you can go faster, you want to keep the throttle pinned in, but you can’t.
“I think today probably didn’t play in our favor the wind direction. There are two big places where you are going to do lift and coast. Basically you lift the throttle before the end of the straight line, you leave the car rolling until you get to the brake point.
“It was 12 and five. Both of them were the headwinds. I think it was slowing down the car more than it should have. That probably played a bit of a role in the lap time. Probably something to keep in mind for the future.
“Out of 90 laps, I think I did three laps where I was flat out, that’s it. The rest I had to lift and coast and save fuel. It’s a strategy we decided as a team before the race. We thought we could win with it, but obviously no.”
McLaughlin calls the three-stop strategy the “happy driver strategy.”
It’s a risk by going this route. You just have to catch the caution at the right time. In all 13 years of this race, never has it gone caution free. However, in cases like last year, the lone caution fell on Lap 32. That was two laps after the opening pit window closed and didn’t make a difference on things. The only thing it did was put a dagger on the three stop strategy.
This year, the caution flew six laps later on Lap 38. Sting Ray Robb stalled on track on Lap 37 but INDYCAR kept the green flag out another lap to allow those to pit to do so.
McLaughlin did. All those on the three stop strategy ended up pitting prior to the lone caution flying. None of the contenders on the two stopper did.
It cost them.
Grosjean had the lead back after leading the first 30 laps. However, McLaughlin was now behind. With McLaughlin being able to do qualifying laps the rest of the way and Grosjean still in fuel save mode until the end, it flipped the top strategy to the three stoppers.
“We executed very well this weekend,” Grosjean said. “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 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.”
Being on the three stopper though is a physical aspiration. This track is so challenging to drive on and to do 90 laps of qualifying pace, it could hurt by time you wind down for the night.
“Its hard because this track is high commitment, you need confidence,” McLaughlin said on Friday. “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.”
This strategy allowed McLaughlin to find his rhythm and allowed him even after being passed by Grosjean on his out lap, to re-pass him six laps later for the win.
That’s why McLaughlin feels like this was the most complete race that he’s driven thus far in his brief INDYCAR career. Even when Grosjean caught McLaughlin, “napping” he feels like from a strategy and race craft standpoint, this was bar none the best he’s had.
“I was pressuring him,” McLaughlin admitted at the end. “I knew he was starting to save fuel and stuff. I was biding my time. I was really surprised. I didn’t think I was going to pass him at that point. Sort of just took my chance.
“I had a lot more push to pass than he did. I just used push to pass all the way up to seven, managed to clear him. He was never going to sort of pass me into eight. If he did pass me into eight, he was probably going to crash me. Just sort of hoped to God that he didn’t do that, and he didn’t. We got out of there and pressed on.”
By doing so, this has quickly become one of McLaughlin’s favorite stops on the schedule.
Personally I think this is our best road course that we go to. Especially now it’s my favorite (smiling).
“Honestly, it’s a great place,” he said. “The state of Alabama do a fantastic job with how they look after things. A beautiful place. I remember coming here the first time going, Whoa, this is amazing.
“But to drive an INDYCAR around here at high speeds, high commitment, is some of the best driving you’ll ever do. I’m telling all my friends back in Australia like Shane van Gisbergen. People are asking, like, the track looks awesome. Yeah, this is next-level commitment.
“They’ve got a gym here. I’m very excited they extended the contract multi-year for more races here, especially now I know I’ve got a good car. Very cool, cool place.”
Grosjean is also hoping for that new multi-year contract. He admitted on Saturday that he doesn’t have anything in place yet for 2024. However, he’s hopeful a pair of poles and runner-up finishes this season and also being a championship contender helps gets a deal done soon.
Power moved up eight spots to finish third with what he described as an engine down in power while Pato O’Ward and Alex Palou rounded out the top five.
Palou won his first race here in 2021 and in the return trip a year ago, was runner-up to O’Ward. He now has a third top five in as many tries.
“I love this place,” boasted Palou who has 17 top five finishes and 15 podiums in 37 starts with Chip Ganassi Racing.
He’s not finished worse than eighth all year. O’Ward has three top fours in four races. They each trail Marcus Ericsson by three (O’Ward) and nine (Palou) in the standings going to the GMR Grand Prix at Indianapolis.
Four wins now on four different tracks has McLaughlin in the championship race as he improved six spots in the standings with heading to Indy 11 points behind. Grosjean (-15) rounds out the top five.