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

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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 PRIMERDetails 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.

“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 PRIMERDetails 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.

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.”

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed their new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with US-based Ford Motors in a press event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Team Principle Christian Horner. They are the only Formula 1 team to launch in the United States, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen had already wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts will inevitably turn to establishing a dynasty – and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his principle rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.