ANALYSIS: McLaughlin is a red-hot IndyCar title contender

Scott McLaughlin after winning the Portland IndyCar race in 2022

Scott McLaughlin after winning the Portland IndyCar race in 2022

The IndyCar field will soon hit the track for the first Open Test of 2023 ahead of what promises to be another season of intrigue.

Back on September 11, 2022 in Laguna Seca, a changed Will Power sealed his second IndyCar Series title, adding to that which he scored in 2014.

Fittingly, he did so by finishing third in nervous fashion, salvaging a podium on an afternoon during which he was deserted of speed.

Power’s result denied team-mate Josef Newgarden, already a two-time IndyCar champion, another crown, while Team Penske’s other driver, Scott McLaughlin, ended the year fourth on a countback with three race wins to 2021 champion Alex Palou’s one.

Power and Newgarden will naturally be considered title contenders again in 2023, even if the latter has a new race engineer for the second year in a row, but McLaughlin could very well upstage both.

The New Zealander bolted out of the blocks in his second full season in IndyCar, winning last year’s St Petersburg race from pole position – the first time he had achieved either – and finishing an ever so close second next time out at Texas.

His formline started to dip in May and June, and his title hopes became distant even if he always maintained belief, at least on the outside.

However, McLaughlin’s results in the latter 10 races following a shocker in Detroit are more than encouraging.

In that period, he averaged a finishing position of 5.80, pipping the 5.88 which Power achieved over the course of the whole campaign.

However, remove the outlier of the first race of the Iowa double-header, when McLaughlin had to pit from fourth at the time of the final restart due to a loose wheel, and the average drops to fourth position.

If one isolates the last six races of 2022, the three-time Supercars champion’s average finish is 3.17.

It was a point made by the man himself in comments to in the weeks following last year’s Laguna Seca finale.

“I’m pretty sure from Road America onwards or something, we had an average finish of three or something,” he said.

“I can’t remember what it was, [but it was] something crazy.

“So, if we can somehow hit the ground running like we did this year with the consistency that we had – even if we don’t win races and stuff – at least we can just keep consistently knock out those results and that’s exactly what you need to do to win the championship, for sure.”

Worth noting also is that his oval results from 2022 read second at Texas, 29th due to a crash in the Indianapolis 500, 22nd at Iowa due to the loose wheel but third the next day (helped by an unfortunate crash for Newgarden), and third at Gateway, demonstrating versatility.

McLaughlin had set a target of averaging seventh position following his first-up win at St Petersburg last February, given Palou got through his title-winning 2021 campaign with a 7.31 (and Newgarden a 7.25, although his total points haul was hampered by finishing only 12th in the double-points Indy 500).

He acknowledges that Power’s ultra-consistent year in 2022 has raised the bar.

“I think every year it’s getting raised and Will was just extremely consistent and finished races – finished every lap – and that was a huge help for him,” said the pilot of the #3 Chevrolet-powered Dallara.

“And finishing them strong; even when he qualified bad, he still knock out a top three, very similar to what we’ve seen [Scott] Dixon do for many years.

“I think the bar is just constantly getting raised and the teams are getting stronger and there’s no discrepancy between the teams.

“It makes a team like Team Penske work very hard and find a different level out of themselves, which is awesome, it’s great for the category.”

The first session of the Open Test at The Thermal Club starts on Thursday at 09:00 PT/Friday at 04:00 AEDT.

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