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.
ST. PETE PRIMER: Details for following the 2022 season opener
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.
From @supercars to @IndyCar, @smclaughlin93 is FAST.
The three-time Supercars champ can now say he’s a pole winner in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES! pic.twitter.com/F4OyMtzpFk
— IndyCar on NBC (@IndyCaronNBC) February 26, 2022
“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.
ST. PETE PRIMER: Details for following the 2022 season opener
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.
Driver mood: 😡
My first try on reds was in Q and I just didn’t maximize the available grip.
Lessons learned. Tomorrow is a new day. pic.twitter.com/hQIMdXkftM
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) February 26, 2022
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.”