McLaughlin masters Penske pit strategy to win at Barber
If you’re a fan of race strategy, the Children’s of Alabama Indy GP was a thrilling affair as a battle between two- and three-stoppers played out for 90 laps on Sunday, and when it was over, Scott McLaughlin won round four of the NTT IndyCar Series season in front of a large and enthusiastic crowd.
The only caution of the day was triggered on lap 38 to retrieve the stranded No. 51 Dale Coyne Racing with Rick Ware Racing Honda driven by Sting Ray Robb. The series kept the pits open as the three-stop contingent dove in for tires and fuel while those on two-stops needed to stay out to make their strategy work. The timing didn’t necessarily harm those on two-stops, but it made life a bit easier for those on three.
The New Zealander’s victory came at the expense of polesitter Romain Grosjean—a bridesmaid once again—after the Swiss-born Frenchman led the majority of the race with his two-stop plan in the No. 28 Andretti Autosport Honda. But he succumbed to the pressure applied by the three-stopping McLaughlin late in the contest as he locked a brake and slid wide in Turn 5 on lap 72.
Grosjean goes wide!
Scott McLaughlin to the lead! #INDYCAR
📺 : @NBC and @peacock pic.twitter.com/mWYtU1kOa1
— INDYCAR on NBC (@IndyCaronNBC) April 30, 2023
“It hurts,” Grosjean admitted. “The three-stop never wins in Barber, (except) today. We had an incredible car, drove really well; gave it 100 percent, but we got unlucky with that yellow. I gave it all. Congrats to Scott. He deserves to win. We got good points. Our day will come.”
Out of push-to-pass to rectify the error and hold off McLaughlin while powering out of the corner, McLaughlin fired his No. 3 Chevy down the inside of Grosjean on the run to Turn 6 and captured a lead he never surrendered.
“The team advanced me to victory lane,” McLaughlin said. “We had great fuel (mileage). I’m really pumped about it. I’m glad to get a win here. We had a hell of a strategy here today.”
Penske’s Will Power secured third, his first podium of the season, as his team’s gamble to start the race on the faster but less durable Firestone alternate tires paid off with a 1-3 finish; Josef Newgarden, the third member of the Penske trio, had an array of challenges that left him down in 15th.
“It was an extremely good day,” Power said of the call to do an extra stop, which allowed him and the other three-stoppers to go flat out for the entire race.
“It was super fast when we were in clean air. We’re on another championship run. I was able to push the whole way.”
Despite Newgarden’s distant run — “This one got away pretty badly,” he said — Penske’s strategy gamble made all the difference in how the race was settled.
Just off the podium, Arrow McLaren’s Pato O’Ward was never a serious threat for the win, but his consistent effort was good enough for fourth in the No. 5 Chevy.
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Chip Ganassi Racing was strong on Saturday, placing Alex Palou in second and Scott Dixon fifth to start the race, but both fell backwards on Sunday as Palou dropped to fifth and Dixon came home in seventh. The only positive, and it was modest, was generated by Ganassi’s championship leader Marcus Ericsson, whose low start of 13th was improved to 10th, which ensured he retained the lead in the Drivers’ standings, but by just three points over O’Ward.
Between the Ganassi duo was Christian Lundgaard, who delivered Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s most competitive run of the season on the way to securing sixth in the No. 45 Honda.
Elsewhere, Ganassi’s Marcus Armstrong used a three-stop run to overcome his qualifying penalty and leap from 26th to 11th. Long Beach winner Kyle Kirkwood started and finished 12th on a decidedly average day, and Juncos Hollinger Racing’s Callum Ilott started 15th, fell back, then charged to earn 13th.
Among the final movers, Rinus VeeKay started ninth and finished 16th for Ed Carpenter Racing, and A.J. Foyt Racing’s Santino Ferrucci went in the opposite direction from starting last due to a problem that kept him from posting a lap in qualifying to placing 20th.
Arrow McLaren’s Felix Rosenqvist was the most resilient driver on the day after making contact with Newgarden on the opening lap that sent his No. 6 Chevy spinning. Relegated to the bottom of the field, he worked a three-stop strategy to all it was worth and recovered to take ninth.
Strategy races can be incredibly boring, and for long stretches of the Alabama GP, there wasn’t much excitement to offer, but once the final stops were completed, the showdown between McLaughlin, Grosjean, and Power made for a fun sprint to the checkered flag.
The party resumes in two weeks at the Indianapolis Grand Prix.
As it happened
The opening lap of the race featured a charging Pato O’Ward who tried to take P2 from Alex Palou, but Palou held firm and stayed close to polesitter Romain Grosjean’s gearbox. Felix Rosenqvist was hit in Turn 2 and spun, falling to the back.
Behind them, Rinus VeeKay was up to P7 from P9 and Colton Herta improved from P14 to P9 by lap 4. All three Penske drivers started on the slower primary tires, and as such, Scott McLaughlin fell prey to Scott Dixon who took P4 from him. Jack Harvey, who started P24, is P27 and last.
Lap 8 and Grosjean has pulled a 1.2s lead over Palou. O’Ward is 2.2s back in third. Championship leader Marcus Ericsson has not improved from his P13 starting position by lap 10.
Josef Newgarden is the first to pit on lap 14 to trade primaries for alternates as he commits to a three-stop strategy. Alexander Rossi pits from P8 the next lap to do the same. Up front, it’s a procession as Grosjean leads Palou by 0.9s on lap 15; O’Ward is 1.8s arrears.
McLaughlin pits at the end of lap 15 to do the same swap to alternates and he’s joined by teammate Will Power as all three Penske drivers commit to three stops. P18-21 are held by Newgarden, McLaughlin, Rossi, and Power after their stops.
The initial pit cycle and drop to the rear of the field for the Penske contingent was overcome in short order with qualifying-like laps clawing time back — a theme throughout the day. Gavin Baker/Lumen
Lap 20 and Grosjean holds 1.3s over Palou and 1.8s over O’Ward; Dixon is 2.7s back in P4, VeeKay is 7.0s behind in P5, and the best driver among them on primaries is Christian Lundgaard in P7, 8.2s behind Grosjean. Lundgaard takes P6 from Herta on lap 21, whose alternates are suffering.
VeeKay is next on Lundgaard’s hit list, taking P5 on Lap 22; Kyle Kirkwood does the same to Herta, relieving his teammate of P7. Ericsson is next to pass Herta, claiming P8 on lap 23. Herta’s in a bad way.
Grosjean’s in control on lap 25 with 1.5s on Palou and 2.5s on O’Ward. They’re holding station and saving fuel to make a two-stop strategy work. Behind them, Kirkwood and Ericsson demote VeeKay, improving to P6 and P7. Herta’s down to P10 after Simon Pagenaud executed a pass.
Lap 26 and Newgarden is already up to P10 and is just 17s behind Grosjean. Impressive, but will it be enough to overcome an extra pit stop?
Lap 28 and Herta pits for primaries; he’ll have to stretch before or after his next and last stop. Newgarden’s up to P8. Lap 29 and Lundgaard’s in, taking alternates. VeeKay pits as well, taking primaries.
Lap 30 and O’Ward and Dixon pit for primaries and exit nose to tail. Grosjean and Palou are in at the end of lap 30 and a long stop for Palou gives Grosjean a big gap. O’Ward takes the spot off of Palou, putting his hot tires to good use. Lundgaard fires his car through the final corner to demote Dixon; the Ganassi cars are losing out at the start of the second stint.
Lap 34 and the leaders are the three-stoppers with Newgarden, McLaughlin, Rossi, Power, and Rosenqvist holding the top five. Grosjean is next, first of the two-stoppers, in sixth, 15.3s behind Newgarden. O’Ward is 2.2s behind Grosjean, separated by David Malukas, who is also on three stops.
Malukas takes P6 from Grosjean and Grosjean is 22.2s back from Newgarden. Lap 37 and the racy McLaughlin takes the lead from Newgarden, who pits for alternates.
Lap 38 and Sting Ray Robb’s car is stalled on the side of the road. It’s a flurry of activity as McLaughlin, Rossi, Power, Rosenqvist, and Malukas pit before the series threw the caution.
The jumbled group of drivers had Grosjean leading McLaughlin, O’Ward, Palou, and Lundgaard as they went back to green on lap 43. Lundgaard passes Palou for P4. Lap 44 and Power takes P8 from Rossi.
Halfway point at Lap 45 and Grosjean has 0.5s over McLaughlin, 2.5s over O’Ward, 3.3s over Lundgaard, and 4.1s over Palou. Championship leader Ericsson is P12. Lap 48 and Castroneves is off the track for the third time this weekend.
Grosjean and McLaughlin are pushing out from the others; they’re separated by 0.9s on Lap 52, but O’Ward, in third, is 6.7s down and Lundgaard is 7.6s back in P4. Lap 54 and O’Ward is 7.5s arrears.
Lap 60 and Grosjean’s 2.6s up on McLaughlin while O’Ward is 11.1s behind.
Having been dominant seemingly all weekend, the two-stopper just didn’t allow Romain Grosjean to stretch his legs as he had in qualifying. Instead he wound up mired in the weeds of tire and fuel saving. Richard Dole/Lumen
Grosjean pits at the end of lap 60 as does O’Ward as both take primaries. Lap 62 and Palou and Dixon and Kirkwood pit for primaries; Dixon charged by Newgarden, who was holding up the pack, just before pitting and Newgarden lost a few more positions as a result.
Lap 63 and McLaughlin leads Grosjean by 27.5s, and he’s in to take primaries. McLaughlin takes the lead on cold tires. Unbelievable effort by McLaughlin to draw down the gap before pitting. Grosjean retakes the lead in the final corner as they lightly bang wheels. Masterful move by the new leader.
Lap 66 and Power pits from the lead for his third stop. The rest of the three-stoppers should clear the path for Grosjean and McLaughlin to reclaim first and second.
Grosjean’s got no margin of comfort as McLaughlin is just 0.3s behind while saving fuel as we reach lap 70. He’s also out of push-to-pass as McLaughlin has 29s left to use.
Lap 72 and Grosjean runs wide into Turn 5 and hands the lead to McLaughlin, who used some push-to-pass to ensure he motored by entering Turn 6. Lap 80 and Grosjean’s comfortable hold on P2 is gone as Power is 2.0s behind, having cut it from 10.0s sec.
Power tried his best but didn’t have enough to get past Grosjean; McLaughlin has his fourth career IndyCar win with a 1.7s gap to Grosjean and 3.2s over Power as Penske takes is second win of the year and Chevy takes its second as well.