As Team Penske driver Scott McLaughlin pulled into the pits for his final stop with 28 laps to go in the NTT IndyCar Series season-opening race at the Firestone GP of St. Petersburg, a race-altering confrontation was just over 30 seconds away.
Andretti Autosport driver Romain Grosjean, the race’s polesitter, had made his stop a lap earlier, and as he navigated around the 14-turn, 1.8-mile street course, he knew the two were fated to have a head-to-head battle for what would most likely be the win.
Their worlds collided at pit-out, with McLaughlin rocketing ahead of the Frenchman as they headed to turn 2. But with McLaughlin on cold tires, Grosjean knew the time to pounce was now.
Unfortunately for both, things didn’t work out as planned. Grosjean pulled to the outside and as the two went into turn 4 side-by-side, contact left them both in the tire barriers as the rest of the field filed through. It was the end of the day for Grosjean, who had led 31 laps, and left McLaughlin a lap down in 13th place.
At the end of the day, it was two very experienced drivers going after the same piece of real estate. While McLaughlin was penalized for avoidable contact, it looked like more of a racing incident than anything malicious.
It’s just the stuff of IndyCar. In a series where the championship is usually decided by just a few points and on the last few laps of the final race of the season, if a position – not to mention a win – is there for the taking, a driver has to take it. That’s the reality of dealing with a short, 17-race season. Both did what they felt they had to do.
Despite a sour day for both drivers, they can both take a lot of positives away from the race. McLaughlin, who won on the streets of St. Pete in 2022, is one of the rising stars of IndyCar, and after three wins and a fourth-place points finish a year ago, the 29-year-old Kiwi showed Sunday that he has built on last season and is a true championship contender.
Grosjean walks away with two things going for him: he looks ready to win his first IndyCar race this season, and Andretti Autosport looks to have rebounded from a disappointing 2022 campaign, even if this week’s results don’t show it.
Last year, Andretti Autosport struggled. The cars were slow off of the truck, and the crews were unable to adjust on the fly and make the necessary improvements to run up front on race day. After a deep dive, race-by-race examination over the winter, they emerged at the open test at Thermal Club with a much-improved program.
That continued to St. Pete, where Colton Herta led the way in the first practice, then was joined by Grosjean and Kyle Kirkwood in the Firestone Fast Six qualifying, where Grosjean and Herta made up an all-Andretti front row.
Ultimately, the weekend went south as Herta and Devlin DeFrancesco’s cars joined Grosjean’s on the back of a wrecker. Kirkwood was also involved in an incident, which left his car damaged but repairable, so he was able to continue and finished in an Andretti-best 15th place.
While Andretti leaves St. Pete with bruised cars, bruised bodies and, maybe, a few bruised egos, they also leave knowing that they are heading to Texas Motor Speedway in four weeks’ time (April 2) in a much better place than they were a year ago.
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