It was a beautiful day in sunny St. Petersburg Florida for the NTT IndyCar season opener and it all came down to a two-stop versus a three-stop strategy on track. Scott McLaughlin dominated the Firestone Grand Prix race weekend, securing pole position in qualifying and then delivering a solid victory for team Penske. This was the New Zealand native’s first IndyCar race win and after winning the title of rookie of the year in 2021 for the series, he proved that he belongs on Team Penske alongside veteran drivers Will Power and Josef Newgarden.
After celebrating in Victory Lane, McLaughlin expressed his gratitude to the Captain and the rest of the team for offering him the chance to compete in the IndyCar series.
“Thank you to Roger Penske, everyone,” McLaughlin said. “Yeah, DEX Imaging jumping on board, trusting me, and then Roger Penske and Tim Cindric giving me the opportunity to come here.
“I miss my mom and dad dearly and my family. Wish you guys were here. What a day.”
Despite starting from pole position on a street circuit notorious for being a challenging track to overtake on, McLaughlin had to stick his elbows out and fight till the very last lap as Alex Palou hunted him down.
“Oh, man, it was crazy,” McLaughlin said.
“Really struggled those last couple laps just to keep my head and then save the fuel and all that sort of stuff.
The 2021 IndyCar champion admitted that in the end there was no stopping McLaughlin from tasting his first series victory on the streets of St. Petersburg.
“It was close. It was really, really close, but I don't think we had the pace he had today. Like he was on rails, and he knew where to go fast and where to obviously save some fuel at the end” Palou said.
“I was just there trying to make some pressure so hopefully he made a mistake or anything, but no, he was all good. Congrats to him. I'm super happy that he got his first win.”
The race proved to be a battle between pit strategies, drivers on the two-stop against those on the three- stop ones. The two-stop strategy drivers were the ones who excelled better on track while the three-stop drivers suffered. Scott Dixon who finished the race in eighth, placed the highest out of the drivers on the three stop strategy. Pato O’Ward who finished P12 and Jack Harvey P13 rounded out the top three-stop performers.
Andretti Autosport drivers Colton Herta and Romain Grosjean narrowly missed out on podium finishes. Herta placed 4th while teammate Grosjean ended the race in 5th. Trailing behind in P6 was Dutchman Rinus Veekay.
Christian Lundgaard had a solid IndyCar series debut in the No. 30 Honda for Rahal Lanigan Letterman, the Danish driver finished P11, the highest out of all of the rookie class.
While the majority of drivers in the top ten started the race on the alternate red tires, Power was the only one on the primary black tires. Team Penske split the tire strategy between it’s two drivers McLaughlin and Power who locked out the front row.
McLaughlin had a strong race start as he pulled away from the pack, however Power struggled to find grip on the tires and lost track position to Herta and Grosjean after nearly colliding with the Frenchman.
Grosjean expressed his unhappiness with Power over the radio, as he dodged the Australian avoiding contact.
On lap eight, Harvey was the first to pit and commit to the three- stop strategy. The Brit switched out his alternate red tires for the primary ones. Following Harvey was Felix Rosenqvist, Marcus Ericsson, Helio Castroneves, and Josef Newgarden. Dixon and O’ Ward pitted soon after on lap 12 and 13 trading in the alternate for the primary tires.
Veekay and Herta started to struggle on their alternate red tires on lap 20 as they continued to fall behind and get passed by other drivers. Power taking advantage of the situation easily overtakes Herta.
Veekay pits a lap later a few laps before the first yellow flag is brought out.
On lap 25 Rookie David Malukas causes a yellow flag as he hits the wall coming out of turn 13. Two laps later, the pitlane opens and there is a significant amount of traffic as the majority of the field comes into pit except for Alexander Rossi.
Marcus Ericison leaves his pit and makes contact with Graham Rahal who hits Grosjean as he tries to move out of the way. Ericsson later received a penalty for the unsafe release.
The yellow ends on lap 33 and Rossi who started the race on primary tires finally makes his first pit stop by lap 38.
Newgarden comes in for his second pit stop on lap 42 and sets the trend for other drivers on the three pit strategy. A lap later, Rosenqvist pits and then by lap 48 teammate O’Ward pits.
Pitting on lap 63, Veekay hopes that the overcut will work and pits for the last time, while Hetra follows on lap 64 and Palou does the same after two laps later.