Team Penske IndyCar drivers eye a title rebound as season opens Sunday

Scott McLaughlin’s worlds were colliding, just like the rugby league players streaking by on the field in front of him. A New Zealander who loves all things American sports, McLaughlin stood on the grass at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas — with some of the Super Bowl logos still visible on the turf — and watched a National Rugby League team from Australia go through practice.

“No pads, no helmets, nothing,” the fourth-year IndyCar driver said in explaining his rugby league fandom. “These guys are just big dudes who run straight into each other.”

McLaughlin hopes he doesn’t emulate the latter part during the upcoming IndyCar season, which begins Sunday in St. Petersburg, Fla. But the idea of another athlete from Down Under showing blazing speed on American soil? Coming off of a year in which he finished third in the point standings, McLaughlin certainly doesn’t plan on slowing down.

“I know I can win the championship with the tools I’ve got,” said McLaughlin, who won three titles in Australia’s Supercars before moving to the United States. “It’s probably the best opportunity I’ve had to put it all together and get it done.

“But at the same time, we know we’re going up against the best teams and drivers in the world. So we’ll see how we go.”

That’s the question for not just McLaughlin and Team Penske teammates Josef Newgarden and Will Power — but for all of IndyCar. The driver on top these days, Álex Palou, has won two titles in three years for Chip Ganassi Racing and is still just 26.

Last year, Palou led the series in both wins (five) and podiums (10); his average finish was a scorching 3.7 — the best since Tony Kanaan in 2004. That’s a lethal combination, and any similar season would make Palou the prohibitive favorite again. Palou’s mix of speed and results even left Power to declare his approach to winning the 2022 championship would not have worked in 2023.

“Palou is absolutely top-notch at walking that tightrope of aggression versus consistency,” Power said via phone this week. “Man, that’s a tough act to beat right there.”

Álex Palou

Álex Palou has won two of the last three IndyCar titles, but this is not a Max Verstappen situation. “We have no doubt … we can beat them,” Scott McLaughlin says. (James Gilbert / Getty Images)

That said, the three Penske drivers — each of whom spoke to The Athletic separately — expressed optimism they could take down Palou.

McLaughlin: “Obviously, Palou was strong last year, but we have no doubt in our mind we can beat them.”

Power: “We’ve made some really good progress over the winter. We have improved significantly. You don’t know what the other guys have done, and maybe they have improved as well, but I just know compared to us, we will be better.”

Newgarden: “I feel super positive and encouraged. I don’t think it’s doom and gloom by any means. We’ve got to raise our performance on the road and street courses, and if we can do that, we should for sure be in the fight.”

Of course, both the blessing and curse of IndyCar for competitors is how much of a fight there actually is. Though Palou had an outstanding 2023 season, this isn’t a Max Verstappen situation in Formula One, nor is it F1-like in that only a few cars can win on a given weekend. Even the championship is up for grabs beyond the top two teams.

“I mean, it’s not a marketing tagline: You can’t count anybody out,” Newgarden said. “And when it comes to just a single weekend, it could be anybody.”

In addition to Penske and Ganassi’s drivers (which also includes six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon, mind you), Arrow McLaren’s Pato O’Ward, Andretti’s Kyle Kirkwood and even Rahal Letterman Lanigan’s Christian Lundgaard are among the nearly dozen drivers with championship aspirations.

“The level of drivers and teams IndyCar has, and really the show it puts on every week, is so unpredictable and massively competitive,” Power said. “Different guy wins every time. Different polesitter, different top 10. It’s just amazing racing and good events.”

So how does a team like Penske make gains in the offseason, then? It’s little details, Power said, related to areas in which the organization felt like it was missing. The Penske drivers felt it was “very obvious we were off last year from the outset,” Power explained, and felt he had to dig deep just to reach the top 10 after winning the championship a season prior.

There’s cohesiveness with the Penske driving corps (it’s been the same trio for three seasons now after the team cut its fourth car after 2021) and if the organization really made the gains Power believes it did, the Penske cars should be right in the mix.

“You get a couple of tenths per lap quicker in a race, and it all makes the job that much easier,” Power said.

Ideally, as McLaughlin noted, all three Penske drivers will be in championship contention at the end of the season. As more rugby league players from Australia’s Manly Warringah Sea Eagles streaked by, McLaughlin nodded when asked if he feels he’s now fully made the transition from the Supercars he formerly drove Down Under.

“I’m still learning, obviously,” McLaughlin said. “Dad’s always said to me, ‘There’s no finish line to perfection.’ But I definitely feel more of an open-wheel driver now than I do a touring car driver, and that’s a good feeling.”



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(Top photo of Scott McLaughlin: Michael Allio / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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