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Scott McLaughlin takes ‘massively important’ step with a career-best third in IndyCar points

IndyCar: Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey

Sep 10, 2023; Salinas, California, USA; Team Penske driver Scott McLaughlin (3) of New Zealand is introduced before the Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Scott McLaughlin finished a career-best third in the IndyCar points standings (Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

MONTEREY, California – For the first time since 2018, and only the second time since he joined Team Penske in 2017, Josef Newgarden is not the highest-finishing IndyCar Series driver on the team.

That honor goes to Scott McLaughlin, who climbed from fifth to third in the NTT IndyCar points standings with a runner-up finish to Scott Dixon in the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey.

“That’s massively important,” McLaughlin told NBC Sports on pit lane following the Sept. 10 season finale. “We have only more spots to go. We were fourth last year. I’m going to try to miss second place next year and go straight to the championship next year.

“It sounds great to be the highest-finishing Team Penske driver this season. We work together very hard as a team, but at the end of the day, you want to have those honors. Congrats to (series champion) Alex Palou. He was fantastic this year.”

McLaughlin started on the outside of Row 1, but the field didn’t go far before a two-car crash on the first lap.

“It was silly,” McLaughlin said. “But it’s IndyCar racing. It’s why we do it. Hopefully, we put on a good show for the fans.

“I think I hit everything but the pace car today. Certainly, one of those crazy days, Peak IndyCar days.

“Things that didn’t go my way, things I probably shouldn’t have done either, but we just kept our heads down and kept working. Yeah, took the fuel when we needed, pitted when we needed to. Just slightly came back through.

“I think I had one really good restart where I picked off sort of six or seven cars. I was just hauling. So much fun. Thought I maybe might be able to have a crack at (Dixon) at the end. He was just too fast. I knew if I finished second, I was most likely going to be top three in the championship. That ultimately was my goal coming into this weekend.”

Because of its dramatic elevation changes, including the top of the corkscrew where the cars drop eight stories from the top to the bottom, Laguna Seca is one of the wildest rides in IndyCar.

Sunday’s ride was extra crazy with a ridiculous number of incidents on the track.

“It was wild. It was a roller coaster. There were a few calls that didn’t go our way, that you don’t fully agree on, but we got through it all,” McLaughlin said. “We kept our heads down. We had a fast car. It was a matter of making the right calls, making the right passes where we could.

“I had a really good restart that set us up, so I’m super pumped.”

McLaughlin’s No. 3 Dallara-Chevrolet would ultimately get shuffled to the back half of the field along with Chip Ganassi Racing’s Dixon.

But as the 95-lap race was interrupted a record-tying eight times for caution, the lead ultimately cycled back to favor Dixon and McLaughlin.

“I got an idea halfway through the mid- to last stint, that the race would cycle back to us,” McLaughlin said. “I needed to hit my number where I could.

“Halfway through the race, I was like, this is not working out and this is not our day. At the start of the race the Xpel Chevy was just not getting off, and I was mad there for a bit. It was just annoying, and I had a really fast car, but we just kept our heads down. I had a mega restart and got a heap of spots that put us in position there. So yeah, just super proud.”

“I’m super pumped.

“We’re in a good spot. We’ll keep pushing.”

Dixon’s. No. 9 Honda would win by 7.3180 seconds. It was the fourth time this year McLaughlin finished second to go along with his lone race victory at Barber Motorsports Park in May.

But he was one position ahead of 2023 NTT IndyCar Series champion Palou, who led 51 laps in the 95-lap race but waited one lap too long to make a pit stop before another yellow flag slowed the race and closed pit lane.

Once Dixon got back to the front, he led the final 20 laps to score the 56th IndyCar win of his career. He is just 11 wins behind AJ Foyt’s all-time record of 67.

McLaughlin’s second-place finish locked up the 2023 Manufacturer’s Championship for Chevrolet.

“Ultimately, we didn’t win as many races as we did in 2022, but I think it was a better season overall,” McLaughlin said. “We were solid when we needed to be and we haven’t been out of the top 10 since the Indy 500 and just these guys and girls on the team, the pit stops were phenomenal.

“When I had left front wing damage, they fixed it straightaway to get me out. It’s a really good team and we are really building toward 2024. I said to the guys today, next year starts today, and I am very proud of that.”

As the highest-finishing Team Penske driver in IndyCar, McLaughlin ends an impressive streak by his teammate, two-time IndyCar Series champion and this year’s Indianapolis 500 winner Josef Newgarden.

When he joined the team in 2017, Newgarden won the IndyCar Series championship in his first season. He dropped to fifth in the championship in 2018 but regained the title in 2019.

From 2020 to 2022, Newgarden had three consecutive second-place finishes. He was runner-up in the championship to Dixon in 2020, Palou in 2021 and teammate Power in 2022.

Newgarden won an impressive four times in 2023, all on ovals — Texas Motor Speedway, the 107th Indianapolis 500 and a sweep of the Hy-Vee IndyCar Race Weekend at Iowa Speedway.

A fourth-place finish on the streets of Nashville had Newgarden in contention for the championship, but his season began to unravel in the Gallagher Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course on Aug. 12, the first of two consecutive 25th-place finishes.

Dixon knocked Newgarden out of second place in the standings with his win on the Indy road course that day. Newgarden entered the Laguna Seca finale 22 points ahead of fifth-place McLaughlin.

But McLaughlin was convinced that he could leap from fifth to third and pass his Team Penske teammate in the standings.

Newgarden was involved in an incident in the race and finished 21st, four laps off the pace. He dropped to fifth in the final standings, five points behind Pato O’Ward and nine behind McLaughlin.

“For me it’s just a pride thing,” McLaughlin said. “More importantly, we wanted to be the top Chevy team, beat McLaren, and we did that. I wanted to beat my teammates. Ultimately ticked both those goals.

“I talk about beating our teammates. We had a serious good camaraderie between the three of us. It’s very competitive. It gets tense at times. That’s what you want in a relationship. I think we all push each other to new levels. To beat those two is a proud moment.

“Yeah, super pumped.”