PRUETT: McLaughlin's time is now

Michael Levitt/Motorsport Images

PRUETT: McLaughlin's time is now

IndyCar

PRUETT: McLaughlin's time is now

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My iPhone chirped Wednesday morning at 10:24 a.m. It was a message sent by a driver who would become IndyCar’s newest race winner. “Save this text,” he wrote, “because it’s gonna be a big year for me. LET’S GO.”

There’s nothing like calling your own shot and knocking it out of the park, which is exactly what Scott McLaughlin did in the days leading up to his breakout victory at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

I’ll be honest; I didn’t know where to place expectations for the triple Australian Supercars champion in his sophomore IndyCar season with Team Penske. He showed serious glimpses of talent as a rookie, but not enough to worry a Colton Herta, Alex Palou, Scott Dixon, or his teammates Will Power and Josef Newgarden, much less signal they’d be in for a fight from the first practice session of 2022. And while a win going McLaughlin’s way didn’t seem totally impossible, mingling up front with IndyCar’s established stars felt like more of a goal for 2023.

Well, so much for pre-season predictions and setting expectations for someone like the New Zealander who obliterated any notion that he’s a year away from disrupting the IndyCar driver establishment. McLaughlin’s time is now.

“It’s just belief of what you can do you know, and I guess I worked very hard in the offseason, knowing that I’m coming back to tracks I know that I can be comfortable with,” he told RACER. “I look back at my rookie season in Supercars where it was up and down like a yo-yo, like last IndyCar season was, and how strong I come back in year two.

“I said, ‘Well, I’m a rookie, again.’ I know I can do it. But I’ve got truckloads more experience than I ever had. It’s all just belief in yourself, man. Things get tough, things get down, but it’s all about perseverance and knowing that you’re with the best people on pit lane and knowing that you can do it. And I knew I could do it today.”

McLaughlin spent last year searching for where he fit within Team Penske and the IndyCar series as a whole. He’s never been anything less than a hardcore competitor, but his demeanor as a rookie was a match for his status – the new guy trying to figure out where he stacked up against the names he’s followed from afar since he was a kid. At St. Pete, McLaughlin brought a new level of intensity to his craft.

The smiley, self-deprecating guy from 2021 was put down and replaced by a driver with simmering ferocity in his eyes. The Scott McLaughlin who terrorized the Supercars championship for Roger Penske just paid his first visit to IndyCar, and with that guy behind the wheel, Herta, Newgarden, O’Ward, and the rest of their ilk will need to make way for a new member of the front-runners club.

McLaughin is already a many-time winner for The Captain in Australian Supercars, and now he’s starting an IndyCar trophy collection. Michael Levitt/Motorsport Images

“Last year I wanted to do that, but I don’t think I had the speed or the feeling with the car to do that,” he said. “This year, I was like, ‘No, no, no. This is happening.’”

Leading 49 of 100 laps, McLaughlin was the class of the field. He even left a little bit of speed behind on the way to victory.

“I wasn’t really focused on them; I was focused on my fuel number, I was focused on what I needed to do if they got close,” he said. “I used a bit of Push-to-Pass I think I still had like 100 seconds at the end of the race left that I could use.

“A lot of people asked me, ‘How are you going to get through Turn 1 (at the start) and it’s like, well, I’ve done it plenty of times before; I’ve just got to get through it and then control the race like I used to (in Supercars) and do what I know I can do. And that was for me goes back to having that belief, man. Just get it done.”

The racer from Christchurch who grew up idolizing countryman Scott Dixon is like the six-time champ in many ways. One that stands out is his instant ability to wipe the mental slate clean and position himself as the main person who needs to deliver at the next race. Getting lost in a haze of ego and self-congratulatory nonsense is not something you’ll see from either Kiwi.

“Look, it’s only just starting, and I know full well that I could easily be 20th at the next round in this competitive series,” he said. “I’ve got to dot my Is, cross all my Ts, and make it happen the next few races and just continue this trend.”

Considering how quickly McLaughlin took to the ovals last season and how well he just ran at the St. Petersburg street course, that trend just might continue with the next two races being held on the 1.5-mile Texas oval and the streets of Long Beach. The new IndyCar season is only a couple of days old and we already have a breakthrough and an upset, courtesy of a 28-year-old who used to work as a Supercars mechanic and fabricator.

And McLaughlin was right. After owning Round 1, it’s already a big year for him.

MX-5 Cup | Watkins Glen – Round 8

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