After setting the fastest two-lap average in qualifying before dealing with a nine-place grid penalty for an unapproved engine change, Scott McLaughlin's self-titled ‘Battery Wagon' charged from 10th to fifth in Sunday's Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway.
The #3 Team Penske Chevrolet started 10th out of 28 cars. On the Lap 10 restart following the race's first caution period, the 2019 Bathurst 1000 winner lost several positions, falling to 13th place. McLaughlin moved up to 10th by Lap 14 and roughly stayed in line until his first pit stop on Lap 60. After the first cycle of pit stops, McLaughlin was now ninth after leapfrogging team-mate Will Power in the sequence.
McLaughlin pitted on Lap 104 for his mandated set of the red sidewall alternate compound tyres to run in seventh place. That stint did not last too long as Takuma Sato caused the race's final caution period on Lap 122. Four laps later, McLaughlin swapped the alternate compound tyres and ran the rest of the race on the primary compound.
Thanks to Marcus Ericsson leaving his pit box before his left rear tyre was secure – and Agustin Canapino's contact with one of David Malukas's crew members on pit road – McLaughlin was able to go from seventh to fifth place and remained there through much of the final half of the race.
Josef Newgarden's Turn 2 wall contact on Lap 211 ended up elevating McLaughlin one position higher after his final pit stop, but that was lost two laps later after contact with Malukas.
After McLaughlin was held up briefly in Turn 2 behind Will Power in the #12 Team Penske Chevrolet, Malukas in the #18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda followed Linus Lundqvist in an attempt to get by McLaughlin going to Turn 3.
Malukas and McLaughlin had enough contact that the Penske driver was forced to back out of the throttle significantly in an attempt to maintain control of the car.
“There's got to be a point where you give up and like, you've got to give up the spot,” McLaughlin said. “Well, maybe that's the way he thinks, so that's fine. He didn't want beef, but now he's got beef.”
Malukas saw things differently.
“I followed the car in front on the inside,” Malukas said. “Obviously for position, [McLaughlin] squeezed down. I was right on the kerb. It's not like I washed up into him. It's more that he cut into me. We had a tap. I managed to save it. I guess he did as well.
“He came to me at podium and said something about it. I don't know if he's, like, impressed by it. I don't know, I think he got beef from that. From my standpoint, if you squeeze somebody down on the inside, what else are you going to expect? I can only go on the kerb so much.”
As the rest of the field gradually made their final pit stops, McLaughlin moved from 13th to cycle back up to fifth place on Lap 248, remaining there for the rest of the race.
“I think we had a great day, honestly,” McLaughlin said. “I think we could've, if we don't have that contact or we had a slightly bad stop, so we probably wouldn't have been with [Malukas] in that exchange, so that goes a little bit better. It's okay. But yeah, that hurt us, for us to come back to fifth after like, basically me being in the fence, yeah, it's all good.”
Try as he might, McLaughlin and the rest of the IndyCar field had no response for Scott Dixon and his fuel saving strategy. Running the 260-lap race on only three pit stops allowed Dixon the opportunity to win by over 22 seconds over Pato O'Ward with Malukas third.
“Ultimately it was a track position race,” McLaughlin said. “They [Dixon] got track position with the yellow and then he decided to save fuel where he could, I mean, each to their own. Look, I think we did a good job apart from, you know, out of all the spots where we probably could've taken our engine penalty, this probably wasn't the one where we thought we probably would be okay because the track last year you could race, but this year we can't.”
Next up for the IndyCar Series is the race at Portland International Raceway. Last year, McLaughlin led 104 of the race's 110 laps en route to one of the most dominating wins last season.
When asked if he can repeat that performance, McLaughlin responded: “That's the plan, but we'll see.”