Scott McLaughlin wins first career IndyCar pole, topping Will Power in St. Petersburg


ST. PETERSBURG, Florida — Scott McLaughlin outdueled teammate and qualifying ace Will Power to win his first NTT IndyCar Series career pole Saturday in Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg qualifying.

The second-year driver from New Zealand nipped Power by a tenth of a second on his final lap of the session as Team Penske’s Dallara-Chevrolets earned a front-row lockout for Sunday’s season opener (noon ET, NBC).

“I love qualifying, you have to put it all on the line,” McLaughlin told NBC Sports’ Marty Snider. “Super proud of everyone. I feel confident. I’m a competitive bloke, so I hate starting in the back, but it’s a new thing for me.

STARTING LINEUP: The grid for Sunday’s race

TIRES DESIGNATIONS: Primary or alternate choices at the start

QUALIFYING RESULTS: Click here for St. Petersburg qualifying results | Round 1, Group 1 | Round 1, Group 2 Round 2 l Round 3 (Fast Six)

“I’ll be starting from the front leading a group to the first corner. I’m used to braking with people in front of me, so I’ll have to make sure I don’t overshoot it like an idiot, but we’ll have fun. Appreciate all the fans coming out and can’t wait for tomorrow. Show’s going to be big.”

McLaughlin said Sunday would be the first time he led a rolling start to the green flag in more than 12 years.

In his first 17 IndyCar races, the three-time champion of Australia’s Supercars series (which uses standing starts) had a previous best start of fifth at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. That was the only time he made the Fast Six final round in qualifying last season as a rookie and his only top-10 start on qualifying speed.

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Power, who has 63 career pole positions ranking second all-time behind Mario Andretti’s 67), said he just got beat by his teammate on the 14-turn, 1.8-mile street course in downtown St. Petersburg.

“It was really close,” Power, who still set the track record with a lap of 59.3466 seconds in Round 2, told NBC Sports’ Kevin Lee. “That was two good laps I did. Scott got the most out of it. That’s a solid lap.”

Colton Herta qualified third, followed by Rinus VeeKay, Romain Grosjean (who rebounded from a practice wreck) and Simon Pagenaud, who reached the Fast Six final round of qualifying in his debut for Meyer Shank Racing.

Just missing advancement to the Fast Six final round were Scott Dixon (seventh after brushing the wall with the right-front tire of his No. 9 Dallara-Honda but avoided suspension damage after being 20th fastest in practice) and Josef Newgarden (ninth).

The two-time series champion was satisfied with his team’s performance after an offseason personnel shuffle that included new engineer Eric Leichtle.

“I think the car was really comfy,” Newgarden told Snider. “It’s a new team for us, really, and everyone is doing a great job getting along really well and geling. Just a couple of things you wouldn’t like to have around to start out our weekend and what we’re dealing with, but overall I still feel really confident.

“This was probably the hardest offseason because we had one test day. For Eric, it’s trial by fire, but he’s doing a great job. He’s been around for a while around us in IndyCar with the Team Chevy camp. I think we’ve got a great group here. I’m reminding myself this is the first race. As much as I want to come out knocking down the fence and being the fastest car every session, I’d love to do that, but it doesn’t seem that was destined to start this year, so we’ll try to make the most of tomorrow and hopefully get a podium and maybe a win.”

As expected with a record-tying field of 26 cars, some big-name drivers will be starting from deeper in the field.

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Alexander Rossi (13th), Pato O’Ward (16th) and Helio Castroneves (17th) were among those who failed to advance from the first round.

O’Ward scraped the wall in Turn 9 with the left-rear of his No. 5 Dallara-Chevrolet, bending a suspension piece. The damage prevented O’Ward from another attempt at bettering his lap time later in the session. It was a tough result for Arrow McLaren SP, whose No. 7 Chevy of Felix Roesnqvist (21st) also struggled,

“I had the pace for sure,” O’Ward told NBC Sports’ Marty Snider. “The car had it. We started off the weekend not very good but made some great changes. The car has pace.

“Just note to self for next time: Don’t smash the wall halfway through your lap if you want to transfer. It’s all my mistake. I didn’t quite judge the amount of the snap I was going to get, and I didn’t want to back out of it, so I paid the consequences, but I think we’ll have a good race.”

Jimmie Johnson will start last in Sunday’s race, which will begin his first full-time IndyCar season (and include his expected debut in the Indy 500).

David Malukas was penalized with the loss of his two fastest laps for impeding Johnson’s progress, but the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion shouldered some blame for a dismal start to the weekend.

Johnson spun twice in Saturday morning practice after also looping his No. 48 Dallara-Honda in Friday afternoon’s session.

“We’ve had a couple of challenges along the way getting the car where it needs to be,” Johnson told NBC Sports’ Dave Burns. “Those were my first laps on red tires just as a result of some of the challenges. I certainly didn’t get all that I could out of the Carvana Honda. I did get some laps and looking forward to building on that in the race.

“I’m in a much different headspace (than last year). Far more confidence. Far more expectations. I’m not completely happy with myself and what’s transpired the last couple of days, but we’ll keep working hard, and I’ll keep learning. I know I’ve got this team’s support. We’ll get there.”

Strong rebounds for Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi amid some disappointments in the Indy 500


INDIANAPOLIS – Alex Palou had not turned a wheel wrong the entire Month of May at the Indy 500 until Rinus VeeKay turned a wheel into the Chip Ganassi Racing pole-sitter leaving pit road on Lap 94.

“There is nothing I could have done there,” Palou told NBC Sports. “It’s OK, when it is my fault or the team’s fault because everybody makes mistakes. But when there is nothing, you could have done differently there, it feels bad and feels bad for the team.”

Marcus Ericsson was a master at utilizing the “Tail of the Dragon” move that breaks the draft of the car behind him in the closing laps to win last year’s Indianapolis 500. On Sunday, however, the last of three red flags in the final 16 laps of the race had the popular driver from Sweden breathing fire after Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden beat him at his own game on the final lap to win the Indianapolis 500.

Despite the two disappointments, team owner Chip Ganassi was seen on pit road fist-bumping a member on his four-car team in this year’s Indianapolis 500 after his drivers finished second, fourth, sixth and seventh in the tightly contested race.

Those are pretty good results, but at the Indianapolis 500, there is just one winner and 32 losers.

“There is only one winner, but it was a hell of a show,” three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and Chip Ganassi Racing consultant Dario Franchitti told NBC Sports. “Alex was very fast, and he got absolutely caught out in somebody else’s wreck. There was nothing he could have done, but he and the 10 car, great recovery.

“Great recovery by all four cars because at half distance, we were not looking very good.”

After 92 laps, the first caution flew for Sting Ray Robb of Dale Coyne Racing hitting the Turn 1 wall.

During pit stops on Lap 94, Palou had left his stall when the second-place car driven by VeeKay ran into him, putting Palou’s Honda into the wall. The car sustained a damaged front wing, but the Chip Ganassi crew was able to get him back in the race on the lead lap but in 28th position.

Palou ultimately would fight his way to a fourth-place finish in a race the popular Spaniard could have won. His displeasure with VeeKay, whom he sarcastically called “a legend” on his team radio after the incident, was evident.

“The benefit of being on pole is you can drive straight and avoid crashes, and he was able to crash us on the side on pit lane, which is pretty tough to do, but he managed it,” Palou told NBC Sports. “Hopefully next year we are not beside him. Hopefully, next year we have a little better luck.”

Palou started on the pole and led 36 laps, just three fewer than race leader Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren Racing.

“We started really well, was managing the fuel as we wanted, our car was pretty good,” Palou said. “Our car wasn’t great, we dropped to P4 or P5, but we still had some good stuff.

“On the pit stop, the 21 (VeeKay) managed to clip us. Nothing we could have done there. It was not my team’s fault or my fault.

“We had to drop to the end. I’m happy we made it back to P4. We needed 50 more laps to make it happen, but it could have been a lot worse after that contact.

“I learned a lot, running up front at the beginning and in mid-pack and then the back. I learned a lot.

“It feels amazing when you win it and not so good when things go wrong. We were a bit lucky with so many restarts at the end to make it back to P4 so I’m happy with that.”

Palou said the front wing had to be changed and the toe-in was a bit off, but he still had a fast car.

In fact, his Honda was the best car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway all month. His pole-winning four lap average speed of 234.217 miles per hour around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a record for this fabled race.

Palou looked good throughout the race, before he had to scratch and claw and race his way back to the top-five after he restarted 28th.

In the Indianapolis 500, however, the best car doesn’t always win.

“It’s two years in a row that we were leading the race at the beginning and had to drop to last,” Palou said. “Maybe next year, we will start in the middle of the field and go on to win the race.

“I know he didn’t do it on purpose. It’s better to let that pass someday.”

Palou said the wild racing at the end was because the downforce package used in Sunday’s race means the drivers have to be aggressive. The front two cars can battle for the victory, but cars back in fourth or fifth place can’t help determine the outcome of the race.

That is when the “Tail of the Dragon” comes into the play.

Franchitti helped celebrate Ericsson’s win in 2022 with his “Tail of the Dragon” zigzag move – something he never had to do in any of his three Indianapolis 500 victories because they all finished under caution.

In 2023, however, IndyCar Race Control wants to make every attempt to finish the race under green, without going past the scheduled distance like NASCAR’s overtime rule.

Instead of extra laps, they stop the race with a red flag, to create a potential green-flag finish condition.

“You do what you have to do to win within the rules, and it’s within the rules, so you do it,” Franchitti said. “The race is 200 laps and there is a balance.

“Marcus did a great job on that restart and so did Josef. It was just the timing of who was where and that was it.

“If you knew it was going to go red, you would have hung back on the lap before.

“Brilliant job by the whole Ganassi organization because it wasn’t looking very good at half-distance.

“Full marks to Josef Newgarden and Team Penske.”

Franchitti is highly impressed by how well Ericsson works with CGR engineer Brad Goldberg and how close this combination came to winning the Indianapolis 500 two-years-in-a-row.

It would have been the first back-to-back Indy 500 winner since Helio Castroneves in 2001 and 2002.

“Oh, he’s a badass,” Franchitti said Ericsson. “He proved it last year. He is so calm all day. What more do you need? As a driver, he’s fast and so calm.”

Ericsson is typically in good spirits and jovial.

He was stern and direct on pit road after the race.

“I did everything right, I did an awesome restart, caught Josef off-guard and pulled away,” Ericsson said on pit lane. “It’s hard to pull away a full lap and he got me back.

“I’m mostly disappointed with the way he ended. I don’t think it was fair and safe to do that restart straight out of the pits on cold tires for everyone.

“To me, it was not a good way to end that race.

“Congrats to Josef. He didn’t do anything wrong. He is a worthy champion, but it shouldn’t have ended like that.”

Palou also didn’t understand the last restart, which was a one-start showdown.

“I know that we want to finish under green,” Palou said. “Maybe the last restart I did, I didn’t understand. It didn’t benefit the CGR team.

“I’m not very supportive of the last one, but anyway.”

Dixon called the red flags “a bit sketchy.”

“The Red Flags have become a theme to the end of the race, but sometimes they can catch you out,” Dixon said. “I know Marcus is frustrated with it.

“All we ask for is consistency. I think they will do better next time.

“It’s a tough race. People will do anything they can to win it and with how these reds fall, you have to be in the right place at the right time. The problem is when they throw a Red or don’t throw a Red dictates how the race will end.

“It’s a bloody hard race to win. Congrats to Josef Newgarden and to Team Penske.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500