IndyCar: The driver quietly primed for a 2024 championship run

Scott McLaughlin, Team Penske, IndyCar (Photo Credit: The Tennessean)
Scott McLaughlin, Team Penske, IndyCar (Photo Credit: The Tennessean) /

Scott McLaughlin may be on a nine-race losing streak, but his recent Alex Palou-like consistency has him quietly poised for a 2024 IndyCar championship run.

After finishing in a disappointing second place in Sunday afternoon’s Big Machine Music City Grand Prix, Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin immediately alluded to next year’s IndyCar race on the streets of Nashville, Tennessee, mentioning the fact that the city is now set to host the season finale.

The 30-year-old New Zealander, who has now finished runner-up by less than a second after starting on the pole position two years in a row around the 11-turn, 2.17-mile (3.492-kilometer) temporary street circuit, hopes to be in championship contention the next time the series visits the Music City, and he hopes that he can secure his first victory at the track in conjunction with his first IndyCar title.

Race wins are nice, and McLaughlin certainly felt that Sunday’s should have been his after his impressive qualifying performance and early race day dominance.

But the four-time race winner knows that the 2023 title is well out of reach, and although he found himself moving from sixth to fourth place in the championship standings throughout the weekend and has his eyes on a top three finish, it’s fairly obvious that his long-term focus is beginning to shift to winning the 2024 title.

“I don’t think we can be upset with our year,” McLaughlin admitted to Beyond the Flag. “I think we’ve had a really strong run so far with a few more races left, but we can certainly be in the top three, top two of the championship. That would be a really proud moment for our squad.”

McLaughlin arrived in IndyCar as a full-time driver with Roger Penske’s team in 2021 after spending eight years in Australian Supercars, winning 56 races and three championships along the way.

The IndyCar learning curve proved challenging, as he only edged out a part-time driver competing for the much smaller Dale Coyne Racing team to win Rookie of the Year honors. He recorded five top 10 finishes throughout the 16-race season and placed 14th in the championship standings.

But McLaughlin turned a corner in 2022 after saying that he was looking to model his second season in IndyCar after that of Alex Palou.

As a rookie with Dale Coyne Racing in 2020, Palou recorded three top 10 finishes and one podium finish en route to a 16th place finish in the championship standings. With Chip Ganassi Racing in 2021, he won three races and secured five other podium finishes en route to winning the title.

In 2022, McLaughlin won three races and added four more podium finishes en route to a fourth place finish in the standings — ironically placing him in a tie with Palou.

While one win through 13 races in 2023 may seem disappointing, it’s McLaughlin’s consistency that has emerged as the main story.

Sunday’s race extended Scott McLaughlin’s losing streak to nine, which is the longest he has gone without a win since becoming an IndyCar winner in February 2022.

But he hasn’t finished outside of the top eight since the Indy 500 in late May, and his worst finish of the season of 16th place is the second-best worst finish of any driver this season. He still has just one career DNF in 46 races as a full-time driver, that coming in last year’s Indy 500.

Palou is the only driver with a better worst finish than McLaughlin, having placed no lower than eighth this year, and the 2021 champion leads the championship standings by 84 points — well over one full race win — over Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden with four races remaining on the schedule.

If McLaughlin can carry his current Palou-like consistency into next year and occasionally convert strong performances into race wins, he could be the driver to beat.

“I think what we’re doing right now proves what we can do,” he said. “But it’s a matter of being able to do that all season, and I have no doubt that we can have the pace to do it all season; it’s a matter of just putting the races together.

“And that’s from my side, the strategists’ side, and the mechanics with the pit stops. But we’re confident that we can keep doing this. We’re confident we can keep the speed, and hopefully by the end of [2024], yeah, we are fighting for the championship next year at Nashville.”

To some extent, however, McLaughlin and the No. 3 team — also known as the “Thirsty Threes” — should remain cautiously optimistic.

McLaughlin has finished in the top nine at every track that has hosted a race from June 6 onward going back to last year, so his current hot streak is not exactly unfamiliar territory to the point where you’d necessarily consider him being a surprise “breakout” driver down the stretch this year.

As far as building the groundwork for a championship run the following season in the latter stages of the current season, this is something that he did last year. Yet he was never really a contender this year.

And he is well aware of that fact.

“It’s too early to tell,” he admitted about his 2024 championship prospects. “I think everyone said the same thing last year when we had a really strong end of the season, and you certainly believe that, but like I said, things in IndyCar change a lot.

“You can have up and down results and then another driver like Alex can have a really strong sort of mid-season and put the championship really in his favor, which he did this year — to everyone.”

Since last year, McLaughlin’s only non-top nine finish at any venue from June 6 until the end of the season came at Iowa Speedway last year, when he finished in 22nd place, and his other three results at the track during that streak are all top five efforts. Excluding that lone “rogue” result, his average finish post-June 6 is 3.94 since last year.

Now compare that to Palou’s championship-leading average finish this season, which is just a tad better at 3.46.

But pre-June 6, McLaughlin has recorded seven finishes of 13th place or worse in 13 starts since last year, so he will be looking to stay consistent early in 2024 to avoid a third straight year of effectively falling out of championship contention before reaching his strongest portion of the schedule.

If he can do that, the sky is the limit.

A few weeks ago, I said — and to some extent still believe — that as long as Newgarden is competing for Team Penske, McLaughlin is going to struggle to win a championship.

Whether it’s the 32-year-old Tennessean’s last-corner, last-lap pass on McLaughlin to win at Texas Motor Speedway last year, or the fact that McLaughlin consistently finds himself in the “almost” category behind his teammate at Iowa Speedway — and really every other oval at this point — I still see the 29-time race winner, two-time series champion, two-time road and street course champion, two-time oval champion, and most recent Indy 500 winner as being a tier above the driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet.

But all things considered, the gap is closing, and the battle between the Bus Bros is probably a lot closer than it looks as McLaughlin continues to come into his own as a relatively new driver in the series.

McLaughlin is, after all, just 26 points out of second place in the oval standings (Newgarden has clinched the title already), and he is an astounding six positions ahead of Newgarden in the road and street course standings.

Let’s also not forget to mention that Palou could leave his current No. 10 Honda at the end of the year to join an Arrow McLaren team that, as of now, appear to be a step down from Chip Ganassi Racing in the IndyCar pecking order.

While we won’t underestimate what Palou can do in a car that is still very competitive, the change and subsequent adaptation period could very well further bolster McLaughlin’s championship chances in his fourth season as a full-time driver as well.

The only driver not named Palou or Newgarden whom McLaughlin currently trails in the standings is fellow New Zealander Scott Dixon, who himself is riding a similar consistency streak.

The six-time champion, one of McLaughlin’s heroes growing up, has reeled off 10 straight top seven finishes since being taken out at Long Beach. Aside from that race, his average finish is 4.83. Even at 43 years old, he remains a perennial championship contender.

Next. All-time IndyCar wins list. dark

McLaughlin’s finishes last season in the four races remaining on this year’s schedule were fourth (Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course), third (World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway), first (Portland International Raceway), and sixth place (WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca), good for an average of 3.5. How will he close out the 2023 season? Will he carry his current momentum through the end of the year and into 2024 to potentially contend for his first championship?