McLaughlin spearheads scandal-hit Penske's strong Indy 500 bid

NASCAR transplant Kyle Larson will start from the second row of the grid in the 108th Indianapolis 500 (Justin Casterline)
NASCAR transplant Kyle Larson will start from the second row of the grid in the 108th Indianapolis 500 (Justin Casterline)

New Zealand's Scott McLaughlin will start from pole in the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, spearheading Team Penske's effort to put controversy behind them in the 108th running of IndyCar's showpiece event.

McLaughlin clocked a qualifying record at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with an average speed of 234.220 miles per hour (376.94 km/h), but he can count on being tested early as teammates Will Power and Josef Newgarden line up alongside him on the front row.

Australia's Power won the fabled race in 2018 while Newgarden captured it last year, diving past Marcus Ericsson in a dramatic last sprint of a race that saw late crashes bring out three red flags.

McLaughlin, a three-time Supercars champion in Australia who made the move to IndyCar in 2020, hopes he parlay pole position into a record-extending 15th Indy 500 victory for Penske, which was rocked when Newgarden was disqualified from his victory in the season-opening St. Petersburg Grand Prix for improper use of a "push-to-pass" power boost button.

McLaughlin was stripped of a third-place finish and Power forfeited 10 points in the IndyCar standings.

McLaughlin said team principal Roger Penske "took it to heart, took it pretty heavily.

"I’m just proud that we were able to rise above it, and we'll still continue to work to build the reputation. It was a mistake, and we’ll keep working."

All three Penske drivers said the speed shown in their Chevrolet-powered cars was a testament to work the team had done over more than a year.

"This didn't appear overnight," Newgarden said. "Everybody that has been here the last four years knows we've not had speed in the cars. We've been chipping away. Last year was a big step. Got pretty close, but we were still off. I think this year we really turned the page."

But all three were aware that a lot can happen over the course of 500 miles, so a little caution is called for when the green flag drops.

- Prepare for any circumstance -

"It's interesting, because the race starts, in a way, slowly," Power said. "Not speed-wise, but as far as aggression. It really ramps up in the last 50 (miles).

"I think the further back you are, the more aggressive you have to be to put yourself in a position at the end," Power said. "It's a pretty cruise-y start in a way."

Added Newgarden: "You have to be prepared for any circumstance, any opportunity. It's great to have fast cars, be in position, but you have to be ready for that to change at any moment."

Arrow/McLaren's Alexander Rossi will start from the inside of row two alongside teammate Kyle Larson -- the NASCAR star making his Indy 500 debut -- and A.J. Foyt racing's Santino Ferrucci, who finished third last year.

Larson, the 2021 NASCAR Cup champion, delivered an impressive qualifying performance to set himself up for an attempt to become the fifth driver to complete the Indianapolis 500 and the 600-mile Cup race in Charlotte on the same day.

Tony Stewart is the only driver who completed all 1,100 miles finishing sixth at Indy and third in Charlotte in 2001.

"I'm not sitting here saying I'm going to win the Indy 500," Larson said. "It would be hard for anybody to just come into a foreign type of race car, foreign race procedures and everything, and win."

But Larson is the headliner in an impressive rookie class that also features Marcus Armstrong, Linus Lundqvist, a 19-year-old Kyffin Simpson and Tom Blomqvist.

Armstrong raced IndyCar last year but didn't compete in the oval races.

At the other end of the experience spectrum, 49-year-old Helio Castroneves will start from the seventh row as he goes for a record fifth victory.

He would break a tie with A.J. Foyt, Al Under and Rick Mears for most victories and surpass Unser as the oldest ever winner and heightened expectations with the second-fastest time in Friday's final practice behind New Zealand's 2008 winner Scott Dixon.