McLaughlin starts his bounce back with commanding win at Barber

The 90 laps of racing at Barber Motorsports Park were among the best we’ve seen with the IndyCar Series as differing race strategies and a big pack of front-runners starting deep in the 27-car field made for a thriller won by Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin in the No. 3 Chevy.

“Thank you so much. So proud of you,” McLaughlin said to his team after crossing the finish line.

The polesitter and front-row Team Penske partner Will Power committed to a three-stop strategy, fell out of contention when the first caution arrived at an inopportune time that favored the two-stoppers, and shot back into the winning frame at the end of the race as subsequent cautions blighted the chanced of those like Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou who was leading the two-stop contingent.

With McLaughlin driving like an animal and Palou forced to lap the road course in an extreme fuel-saving mode—at times between 2-3s slower than the Penske driver—McLaughlin pulled out a big enough lead to make his third and final stop and get back to racing ahead of Palou. Power was able to do the same, giving Penske a 1-2 finish.

“We just have to keep rolling,” McLaughlin said to NBC after climbing from his car. “We know our job; we know what we need to do. I’m just super proud of the execution. …A couple yellows didn’t fall our way, but we just showed our pace.

“Execution, execution — that’s our word, and we’ll just keep going.”

Ganassi’s two-stop plan for Palou kept going south as his rookie teammate Linus Lundqvist, also on a three-stop run, charged past Palou to grab his first podium in the No. 8 Honda.

The back-and-forth affair made for a fun blend of charging and saving with no chance to predict how the race would be decided as the cautions shifted the odds between the diverging strategies.

McLaughlin led away from pole with teammate Power and Christian Lundgaard in tow. Colton Herta and Santino Ferrucci had two wheel-banging incidents, first at Turn 1 and soon after at Turn 5. Ferrucci got the better of the last exchange.

Starting 16th, Scott Dixon charged up to eighth in the opening laps.

Pato O’Ward’s day went sideways on the second lap when the 2022 Barber winner spun on his own under braking entering Turn 5. The Mexican fell from fourth to 24th.

The first caution of the day arrived on the sixth lap when Pietro Fittipaldi was fired into the barriers after being hit by O’Ward. The Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver backed into the wall and broke the right of the No. 30 Honda.

The early caution was everything that teams on a three-stop strategy did not want to see; some altered their plans and began saving fuel to try and make a two-stop plan work.

With the field under control, eight drivers running towards the back—led by O’Ward — took the opportunity to pit on lap 8. Getting back to action on lap 11, McLaughlin pulled away again as O’Ward was instructed to perform a drive-through on pit lane as the penalty for taking Fittipaldi out.

Dixon’s forward progression was halted on lap 18 when he paid a nearly identical visit to the Turn 5 gravel trap as O’Ward. Trying to go by Graham Rahal on the right into the corner, he found Rahal moving to the right, which squeezed Dixon onto the curb and grass. Rahal did not appear to be aware of Dixon’s presence. Dixon fell from seventh to 18th.

Up front, McLaughlin held a comfortable 2s lead over Power and 3.2s on Lundgaard on lap 22. Turn 5 — the bane of drivers today — caught Will Power on the next lap as he couldn’t get his car stopped in time to round the corner; he fell to third after driving through the runoff. Now second, Lundgaard went straight to pit lane and became the first of the leading three-stoppers to hold firm to the plan.

McLaughlin held 7.9s over Power and 13.7 on Alex Palou on lap 28. Power pitted at the end of the lap and McLaughlin followed one lap later on lap 29. Palou, who inherited the lead, pitted on lap 30.

Josef Newgarden’s race took a backwards step after pitting on lap 32. A fight with Marcus Armstrong—on hot tires—saw Newgarden try to defend his position entering the penultimate corner, but contact between Armstrong’s left-front tire from the inside line and Newgarden’s right-rear sent the Penske driver into the runoff. Dueling over 12th, Newgarden returned in 17th.

Next in the Turn 5 clash department were Romain Grosjean and Kyle Kirkwood, with Grosjean winning the wheel-banging exchange. Kirkwood settled the score in the same corner, and added some flair as Grosjean was knocked into the runoff.

Alexander Rossi was looking like Arrow McLaren’s top performer until he pitted and returned to the track with the left-rear wheel working its way loose. Stuck in the gravel with a three-wheeled car, the second caution of the race was required on lap 44 to remove his car.

McLaughlin pitted from the lead under caution on lap 47 as did Power; they resumed in 17th and 18th respectively, as Power got out ahead of Lundgaard, who restarted from 19th. The strategy battle to see if those three-stoppers — former leaders — could salvage their days as the timing of the two cautions turned the odds in favor of the two-stoppers at the front.

Palou led the field on the lap 49 restart and had Felix Rosenqvist close behind in second.

The third caution was required on lap 55 when Sting Ray Robb’s A.J. Foyt Racing car turned hard right at the left-hand Turn 1 and hit the barriers. “I think the steering wheel broke,” Robb said before climbing from the car. Most of the field, led by Palou, pitted on lap 56.

Palou got out first with Rosenqvist and third-place Armstrong drag racing to the exit where Rosenqvist was slightly ahead. Armstrong forced the issue and raced him out and moved ahead on track. All three were done with pitting.

The caution timing, coming a few laps earlier than the two-stoppers wanted, tipped the odds back in favor of the three-stoppers. The two-stoppers like Palou down in 11th would need another caution to help; otherwise, extreme fuel saving would be required. Santino Ferrucci led the field to the green on lap 60, but it was waved off.

McLaughlin was in third, Power, fifth, and the extra lap under caution helped the two-stoppers chasing three-stoppers like McLaughlin.

Ferrucci and Lundqvist held strong in first and second, which was great for them but terrible for McLaughlin who couldn’t get by and needed to clear them and streak away to build a big gap over Palou before pitting for the third and final time.

With 23 to go, McLaughlin was 16s ahead of Palou; he’d need to get to at least 27s to be able to pit and return in front of the Spaniard and the other two-stoppers. It was up to 20s with 21 laps to go. At 16 to go, McLaughlin had all he needed with 31.1s over Palou and he pitted for the final time, as did Power.

The Penske duo returned to the track ahead of Palou — game over for the Ganassi driver’s winning ambitions. Three-stopping rookie teammate Lundqvist was pushing hard and passed Armstrong and Rosenqvist before setting off the chase Palou in third with 12 to go. Lundqvist captured third with 11 to run and had an 8.1s deficit to Power to manage.

A caution for the spun and stalled Christian Rasmussen led to a restart with two laps to go and the top three of McLaughlin, Power, and Lundqvist held station.

“I’m extremely happy with a podium,” Lundqvist said. “It’s my first in IndyCar, and it’s been a bit rough for me the first couple of races, and even struggled a little bit this weekend, but man, what can I say — the team did an amazing job. The American Legion Honda [was super fast today] and I basically just listened to whatever [the team] told me to do. They said, ‘Be patient here and you’ll get your reward at the end,’ and we definitely did.

“I think that was the first time [I ever] got to pass some cars, so I was excited about that!”

The NTT Data IndyCar Series heads home next for the the Sonsio Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course May 10-11.


Story originally appeared on Racer