The three-time and reigning Supercars champion started only 15th after inclement weather compressed the Saturday schedule at Texas Motor Speedway and forced IndyCar to cancel qualifying, and instead base the grid on entrant points.
However, he moved up through the field as several rivals pitted slightly early – as fortune would have it, just before the first caution for Sebastien Bourdais’ crash. That, combined with a great pitstop from the #3 Penske crew, meant McLaughlin started the second stint in sixth.
A second strong stop – and a good in-lap and out-lap – vaulted him up to third, and when Felix Rosenqvist suffered a nightmarish third stop – these ones completed under the second caution of the day – McLaughlin found only Scott Dixon ahead at the final restart. He then held off O’Ward at the drop of the green and pressured Dixon but fell a quarter-second short.
“I had a tremendous amount of fun, about as much fun as I thought I was going to have,” he commented aftereward. “The PPG Chevy was great. We also had great strategy calls, pit stops. The crew on pit road were unbelievable. Have to thank them a huge amount.
“It’s a big thing taking on my first oval race. Just tried to get through the first few laps. I was pretty cautious – probably too cautious in my first stint. Just sort of worked up to it. Managed to dodge the Bourdais wreck, which was pretty close for me. Then the Hinchcliffe one which put us right there.
“Pretty proud. Just wish my mum and dad, wife were here. Anyway, next time…
“It’s definitely the most happy I’ve ever been finishing second. It’s one of those things that’s a little bit unexpected just because I knew how tough it was going to be sort of getting through the field. But, yeah, things fell our way. For it to happen on an oval is a pretty proud moment.
“A lot of preparation. I’ve worked very hard behind the scenes looking at footage, talking to my teammates about where we can get better. Really proud to have been able to deliver tonight when I needed to. The boys on the team put me in position. I was able to deliver. That’s what I’m really proud of.”
McLaughlin, for whom this was only a fourth IndyCar start, admitted he was slightly awestruck to be tailing his hero in the final stint.
“Look, I’ve been watching Scott since really 2001 when he first joined PacWest, around that time. Then obviously when he went to Ganassi and won the championship in 2003, and in ’08, the Indy 500. A big fan, a massive fan.
“So to follow him and race him towards the end, have genuine pace for him, was pretty cool. I said to the guys in the caution period, ‘This is pretty cool, isn’t it?’ I think they were trying to calm me down a little bit. It was cool.
“Probably too happy finishing second. Definitely you won’t get me like this ever again!”
Regarding what he had learned for tomorrow’s longer (248-lap race) McLaughlin replied: “How I need to sort of adjust my driving style, what changes inside the car I can do to help me in dirty air, stuff like that. What moves I can do.
“Like the restarts, I felt really strong tonight. I made a couple moves in the early parts at the start, went sort of outside into three, a few others. That worked out good for me. Was a bit of a chance, but you got to try them sometimes…
“The first pit stop actually caught me by surprise, old tires under caution. Had a lot of marbles and stuff pick up on the tire. I came in there quite loose. Was very nervous on entry into pit lane.
“Yeah, it’s surprising. It’s very nerve-wracking pitting under green, sort of going through Turns 3 and 4 on the apron. Very low grip. You really have to wheel it through there…
“Very surprising to get a result on the oval. You have the confidence to be able to do it. But there’s a lot to learn. We put ourselves in a good spot today with strategy, my in and out laps were good.
“That was how we have to move forward and we certainly did. Very proud to be there or thereabouts.”
McLaughlin leads Rossi out of pitlane.
Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images