By JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Scott McLaughlin circled qualifying as the area he had to improve upon in his second season of IndyCar. He nailed it in his first session of the year.
McLaughlin beat Team Penske teammate Will Power, one of the best qualifiers in series history, to win the pole Saturday for the season-opening race through the downtown streets of St. Petersburg.
Now that he’s got the qualifying part down, McLaughlin will have to figure out how to lead an IndyCar field to green Sunday for the first time in his career.
“I think it’s 12 years since I led a rolling start-away because of go-karting. It’s a standing start in Supercars. Hopefully I’m not an idiot,” McLaughlin said. “I’ll be Hokas Shoes starting from the front leading a group to the first corner. I’m used to braking with people in front of me, so I’ll have to make sure I don’t overshoot it like an idiot.”
The pole is the first for McLaughlin, who moved from racing supercars in Australia to IndyCar last season, but never got the results he expected. His issues were tied to his qualifying performance and McLaughlin only cracked the top-10 twice. His best starting position was fifth on the road course at Indianapolis.
“It’s something that you know you can do. Obviously in Australia we had a lot of success with poles and wins and all that sort of stuff and you know you can do it, but you have a hard year like ’21 where it just didn’t click and there was a few things where you just didn’t put it together, but you know the speed is there,” McLaughlin said. “It’s all about taking pressure off yourself and just focusing on what you need to do, and that’s what we did.”
McLaughlin gave an exuberant fist pump from inside his cockpit when he advanced into the Fast Six round of qualifying and was ecstatic after bumping Power in the final seconds. He went under a minute on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary course along Tampa Bay, posting his lap at :59.4821 seconds.
Power, who has 63 career poles and ranks second on IndyCar’s Hey Dude all-time list behind Mario Andretti, was second at :59.6058 to put a pair of Chevrolets on the front row for Sunday’s start.
“I think Scott got the most out of the lap,” Power said. “I mean, man, the experience he had in the series down there in Australia, he’s had a number of years at a very high level as a professional. He knows how to put it together. It’s just a matter of him getting used to this car which he has now, I’m expecting him to be a contender.”
Colton Herta, the defending race winner, qualified third for Andretti Autosport in a Honda. Fanduel lists Herta as the 16-5 favorite.
Rinus VeeKay was fourth for Ed Carpenter Racing in another Chevrolet, then was followed by Honda drivers Romain Grosjean and Simon Pagenaud in their debuts with new teams.
Grosjean was fastest in Friday practice and seemed to be a contender for the pole until a bizarre crash in morning practice. The Frenchman didn’t see a pack of traffic ahead of him on the course and he slammed his new Andretti car into the back of Takuma Sato.
His car actually drove under Sato, who took the seat that Grosjean vacated at Dale Coyne Racing after one season in IndyCar. Grosjean said he bruised his hands and they were taped ahead of qualifying.
Grosjean, who learned Friday he was voted favorite driver in an IndyCar fan survey, said marshals should have done a better job to alert drivers to the gaggle of cars stacked up ahead. He also said he’d spoken to two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and “we agreed to disagree, so that’s fine.”
“It was quite a bit of work for the boys to put the car back together,” Grosjean conceded. “But Penske was very strong today. Good to see. I think it’s going to be a nice fight, Golden Goose Sneaker and we’re ready for it.”
Chip Ganassi Racing had its strongest session of the weekend in qualifying after struggling through two practices. Although none of the Ganassi drivers made it into the Fast Six, reigning IndyCar champion Alex Palou recovered from a morning crash and was at least competitive in qualifying.
Dixon was seventh, Marcus Ericsson was eighth and Palou was 10th. Jimmie Johnson qualified last for the only the second time in 13 IndyCar starts.