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McLaughlin: “Clean air” aided Thermal IndyCar runner-up spot

Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin says that clean air made the key difference to finishing second in IndyCar's $1 Million Challenge at Thermal Club on Sunday.

Scott McLaughlin, Team Penske Chevrolet

Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

McLaughlin was the main challenger to Alex Palou in the non-championship event's 20-lap final, which was split into two segments, but couldn't usurp the Chip Ganassi Racing driver who had previously topped his qualifying group and won his heat race.

The 30-year-old New Zealander trailed Palou by 5.792s at the flag, but still sported a smile during the post-race media availability after earning $350,000 in prize money that he revealed will go towards his mortgage.

The first segment of the final saw the field settle into a rhythm with minimal passes made in an effort to conserve tyres, which could not be changed at the half-time break.

“In the final race, we were pretty conserving, looking after our tyres at the start, being smart, knowing there's guys that were going crazily slow, almost too slow I feel like, from a racing perspective,” McLaughlin said.

“[At] the start of race two [second segment of the final], I tried to have a go at Alex, but ultimately he was just a little bit faster with that clean air.

“It was always going to be clean air was going to be king this weekend. I settled in, tried to maximize what I had. That was second today.”

Uniquely, the second half of the final was not a double-file restart as the field was lined up in single file instead. McLaughlin still pressed briefly, but Palou built up enough spacing with his initial launch.

“I had a really good run actually,” McLaughlin said. “I sort of felt that's where Alex was going to go.

Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

Photo by: Josh Tons / Motorsport Images

“Felix [Rosenqvist] actually went at that same point the run before. I sort of pre-empted it, hoping he would go to the same spot. That's exactly where I would go at the start of the restart as well.

“Got a decent start but couldn't get close enough to make a move. But I was proud of the day. Thought we maximised what he we could. We're happy.”

Reflecting on the beginning of his heat race, where he started and finished second, McLaughlin admitted he was “lucky not to get caught up with the kerfuffle” that was triggered by six-time series champion Scott Dixon punting Romain Grosjean into a spin.

Grosjean was sent backwards towards the apex of the corner and clattered into Rinus VeeKay, while Will Power was delayed and didn't progress to the final.

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“I could see it in my mirror,” commented McLaughlin. “Me and Felix both went wide.

“Interesting to get his thoughts on it. I saw him. I'm sure he did… This is not going to be good.

“Obviously, [Grosjean] hit Rinus [VeeKay] behind us. I got away with that.

“Settled into a rhythm. Felt like we had a good speed in the heat race.”

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