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McLaughlin soaks up every moment of making Team Penske history ahead of the Indy 500

IndyCar Indy 500 Auto Racing
Posted at 7:41 AM, May 24, 2024
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — In the late-night hours, long after Scott McLaughlin had won the pole for the Indianapolis 500 and with his adrenaline still running far too high to get any sleep, he slipped into the grandstands to collect his thoughts.

McLaughlin sat alone in the darkened Indianapolis Motor Speedway, listening to Post Malone and scrolling through his phone, answering all the well wishes he’d received for what the IndyCar star considers the biggest accomplishment of his career.

McLaughlin led the first Team Penske lockout of the front row at the Indy 500 since 1988 when he won the pole for Sunday's race. He will start alongside Penske teammates Will Power and reigning winner Josef Newgarden.

As he gazed between his phone and his Penske pit stand, McLaughlin found himself in awe of what he had done. His four-lap qualifying average set a record, and the moment he finished his first lap, the result seemed so predetermined that he said his parents watching back home in New Zealand burst into tears because of that impending moment.

The 30-year-old McLaughlin? He collected the pole-winner award and then headed to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway golf course, the orders coming down from his boss, Roger Penske, to take the rest of the day off. And that's how he found himself alone in the IMS grandstands when he should have been sleeping.

“I just sat there alone. My music on. I had like 250 or 300 texts. I texted everyone back,” McLaughlin said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I knew I couldn't sleep and I really just wanted to soak this place in. Any day of the year you are at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is special, but after you've just gotten the pole? I didn't want to go to sleep. I didn't want the day to be over. It's the biggest accomplishment of my career."

That's saying a lot. McLaughlin was well-established when he arrived in IndyCar late in the 2020 season. He'd just captured his third consecutive Australian V8 Supercars title — winning a record 18 races in 2019 — ticked the Bathurst 1000 off his resume, and he felt there was little left to accomplish racing across the world.

So he made the move to the U.S. — not such a tough decision since his wife, Karly, is a native New Yorker and he had an IndyCar offer from Penske — and has shown remarkable improvement in each of his three-plus seasons.

He won three races in 2022, and last year, he was the highest-ranked Team Penske driver in the standings at third, outdueling Newgarden, who won the Indy 500 and three other races but finished fifth.

Now, McLaughlin will lead the field to green as Penske seeks a record-extending 20th win in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

The front-row sweep comes at a time when Team Penske is trying to move forward from a cheating scandal in which IndyCar late last month disqualified Newgarden's victory and McLaughlin's third-place finish in the March season-opening race. The drivers were found to have illegally used their push-to-pass boost of additional horsepower when it was not allowed.

Penske has since suspended four team members, including Team President Tim Cindric, who is Newgarden's strategist and considered one of the best in the business.

Not long after the qualifying across the front row, Team Penske scored another victory when Joey Logano won NASCAR's $1 million All-Star race at North Wilkesboro Speedway.

“Obviously the one person this whole thing hurt the most was Roger, and he took it to heart pretty hard,” McLaughlin said of the cheating scandal. “I think we have great depth and that's a testament to the team. But this has been great medicine because whenever your integrity or reputation is put into question — and that's understandable considering what happened — it sucks. But you look at how you turn those negatives into positives and I feel Team Penske is doing a good job.”

So good of a job that Power for months had been saying Team Penske's offseason work was so intense that he was convinced at least one of the three Chevrolets would win the pole. McLaughlin could have used a little less of Power's confidence.

“I wasn't as confident as him and, if anything, wanted him to shut it off a little bit,” McLaughlin said. “I just don't think we needed the unnecessary pressure. We knew. We all had a quiet belief that we could do it. But we didn't need to be out there telling everyone.”