Talk about a year of peaks and troughs for Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin. The peaks were spectacular. With 18 wins, the Kiwi not only broke Craig Lowndes’ record for most wins in a Supercars season but also eclipsed a Team Penske wins record set by Mark Donohue back in 1968. The troughs, however, were explosive.
For the majority of the season, the Ford teams were engulfed in a fierce debate over parity. The new Mustang was accused of creating far too much mid-corner downforce, despite hitting the required straight-line aero figures. McLaughlin’s rampant winning streak certainly didn’t help calm the Holden-shod teams. Then, right as the parity storm began to dissipate, along came the Bathurst 1000.
McLaughlin fulfilled a life-long dream by winning the Great Race, alongside Alexandre Premat, only to have the results left provisional for a week thanks to an ongoing investigation into the infamous Fabian Coulthard go-slow order. The team was fined $250,000 for its actions, but McLaughlin was allowed to keep his win. Then, exactly four weeks later, there was a second Bathurst controversy; the engine McLaughlin used to take pole, which was swapped out the night before the race, failed post-race scrutineering due to excessive valve lift.
Again he was allowed to keep the win, but the saga created tension between McLaughlin and a number of his rivals. He would go as far as labelling the paddock "toxic" at the height of the fall-out. Whether McLaughlin would have won the Bathurst 1000 from the back of the grid, or even fought back from fifth or sixth in the pack, had it not been for a moment of strategic vulnerability being masked by the Coulthard intervention, is impossible to say. In that sense, his detractors have a case. At the same time, the #17 was the class of the field at Mount Panorama – so one could argue that any other result would have been an injustice of sorts of as well.
While it’s all been marvellous theatre for the category, and reignited a long-lost sense of tribalism between Ford and Holden fans, it’s impossible to not feel sorry for McLaughlin. He didn’t design the Mustang’s aero package. He didn’t ask Coulthard to slow down at Bathurst. And he wasn’t responsible for checking valve clearance on the engine. All McLaughlin ever did was drive what he had underneath him as fast as it would go. And, massive Gold Coast shunt aside, he did it to perfection. He was brilliant in every aspect that he could directly control.
He copped it hard from the haters, but McLaughlin proved himself as a megastar of a driver in 2019. He’s not just a worthy two-time Supercars champion, but good enough to cut it anywhere, at any level. Take note, NASCAR.
With two titles and a Bathurst crown now under his belt, it's time to seriously ponder just how long Scott McLaughlin will stay in Supercars. The 26-year-old has never made a secret of his NASCAR ambitions, but he also had a very clear list of objectives that needed to be checked off in Australia before he looked overseas.
The first was a title, which he ticked off last season. With that in the bag, McLaughlin himself reiterated that NASCAR was his "obvious goal", while Roger Penske admitted a maiden crown had "opened the door" for a Stateside move. But the door was more ajar than wide open. Both McLaughlin and the Team Penske organisation wanted a Bathurst 1000 win before committing the Kiwi elsewhere. That too has now been accomplished.
There are now just two things standing in the way of a NASCAR deal for McLaughlin - the fact he's already been signed on for the 2020 Supercars season, and the finer details of how he'll make the transition from Supercars to NASCAR. Penske has said on a number of occasions that lessons were learnt from rushing Sam Hornish Jr from IndyCar to Cup-level NASCAR, hinting that if McLaughlin wants to chase his NASCAR dream, he'll be starting from the bottom.
"I think if he comes here, he’s got to start lower down and work his way up, like through ARCA, Xfinity and that," Penske told Autosport back in January. "You don’t just put a guy in a Cup car. I think that’s probably the mistake we made with Sam Hornish when he switched over from IndyCar - we should have given him a chance to learn at a lower series because stock cars are so different from what he’d been used to. There’s a path to follow.
"But certainly, Scott’s a great driver and a candidate to get a good opportunity here."