McLaughlin seemed underwhelmed with his race at Long Beach, since the way the caution flags fell didn’t work with the #3 car’s strategy, so he started 13th and finished 11th.
“We took a little bit of a punt with the strategy at the start, staying out [under the second caution]. Would have worked out if there wasn’t another quick yellow, and unfortunately there was. We pitted, it put us back to sort of P22, 23. After that it was all just about trying to make the most of what we had. We moved our way forward all the way to 11th.”
However, with fellow Long Beach newcomer Romain Grosjean eliminating himself by brushing the wall at two-thirds distance, McLaughlin clinched the Rookie of the Year title by 33 points. When it was pointed out that he had become Team Penske’s first ever winner of the RotY in the 42 years since its inception, McLaughlin self-deprecatingly grinned and said, “I think it just shows that Roger doesn’t really employ rookies!”. But he did state he was satisfied by his achievement.
“You get one shot to win this, it’s a proud moment regardless,” said the 27-year-old New Zealander who won Supercars’ equivalent accolade – the Mike Kable Young Gun Award – in 2013, before eventually becoming a three-time Supercars champion with DJR Team Penske. “To win the Rookie of the Year, it will sit with me forever and no one can ever take it away from me.”
As he explained in a recent interview here, McLaughlin felt far more at one with his IndyCar in the season’s final quarter, and he regards qualifying – and in particular, understanding tire compounds – as his Achilles’ heel.
He told the media on Sunday that for 2021 his “ultimate goal” had been “top 12, top 10 in the championship” and he was disappointed to learn that he had finished up 14th. But asked by Motorsport.com what would be a realistic target for his sophomore year, he replied: “I think top 10 in the championship, for sure, I need to be pushing there… I think we’ve got that merit.
“I think we took a few risks on strategy the last few races because of where we were in the championship, we had nothing to lose. … But it’s exciting where I am and where I feel. I certainly believe in my mind that I can be right there in that top eight, really be contesting for wins and podiums more regularly.
“I’ve still got a lot to learn. I think next year being able to go back to all these tracks that I learnt, it’s going to feel amazing.”
McLaughlin also won the Indy 500 Rookie of the Year title, but got a drive-through penalty for speeding on pitlane while appearing set for a top-six finish, and so came home 20th, after qualifying fastest of the four Penske drivers in what was a bad year at the Speedway for its most legendary team.
“I’m going next year to Indy with the idea of winning,” said McLaughlin who scored a runner-up finish at Texas Motor Speedway. “I’m going to be in a car that can win the race.
“I know I’m quick there. I know I’m quick on ovals. I feel like I’ve got a handle on it. It’s just a matter of having a good month, building up to it – dotting my Is, crossing my Ts, not speeding in pitlane. That really hampered me. I think we were on for a top five…
“I was infatuated with the Bathurst 1000 before I won it. Now I’m infatuated with the Indy 500. With my wife, I’ll watch old Indy 500s on telly, YouTube videos, watch anything. I just will be infatuated with it until I go good there and get a result. Certainly I want to get there next year.
McLaughlin cited Laguna Seca as his favorite road course on the IndyCar schedule, Long Beach as his favorite street track and Indy as his favorite oval “for obvious reasons.” Asked for his season highlights, he inevitably picked his second place in Texas, but added: “I think also starting my first Indy 500 – there’s nothing better. Rolling out and seeing all the fans. Every driver in the intro room was saying, ‘Wait till you see it next year when it’s full.’
“I can’t wait… I’m really excited for that.”