Penske considering McLaughlin for IndyCar races in 2020

Team Penske president Tim Cindric has confirmed that Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin’s test at Sebring yesterday was more than just a novelty one-off and that the team is investigating the possibilities of the 26-year-old making his IndyCar race debut this season.

Penske considering McLaughlin for IndyCar races in 2020

McLaughlin, who has won the last two Supercars titles for DJR Team Penske and clinched victory in last season’s Bathurst 1000, tested one of Penske’s Dallara-Chevrolet IndyCars on Sebring’s 1.7-mile short course yesterday. The New Zealander accomplished himself extremely well, finishing the day with a best lap time just one second slower than Ed Carpenter Racing’s new signing Rinus VeeKay, the Indy Lights champion.

Now Cindric has confirmed to that Penske is hoping to add McLaughlin to its driver roster for Spring Training at Circuit of The Americas on Feb. 11-12, with a longer-term view of putting him in a fourth race entry alongside Josef Newgarden, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud at some point this season.

“We haven’t finalized whether we’re going to be able to run Scott at COTA or not, so we’re still working on that,” admitted Cindric. “IndyCar won’t let just anyone show up to an open test without a commitment to running somewhere else. So that depends on if we can put something together in time for that test or whether there’ll be something else, another opportunity.

“We’re still trying to figure that out, but the first step was to go to Sebring. We’ve checked Scott’s schedule to see if the COTA open test is a possibility or not, and yes it is from that standpoint, but from the final decision standpoint, we still need to figure out that part of it. It comes with the caveat of knowing that we’re going to enter him in a race at some point.”

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Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course race from May 8-9, a free weekend for Supercars and IMSA, is "one of the possibilities," according to Cindric. Penske ran an extra car in that event for Juan Pablo Montoya in 2017 and Helio Castroneves in ’18 and ’19, ahead of their appearances for the squad in the Indy 500. While Castroneves will again compete for Penske in this year’s 500, he has not been confirmed in the fourth car for the GMR Grand Prix at Indy.

That extra entry comprises personnel from Team Penske’s IMSA program, including race engineer Jonathan Diuguid who ran Castroneves when the Brazilian ace was an IndyCar full-timer, and who was present at McLaughlin’s Sebring test.

Were the McLaughlin-to-NASCAR assumptions wrong?

While McLaughlin has for a couple of years made it plain that he would rather race in America than confine himself to setting new records as a veteran of Supercars, it had been assumed by many that the 26-year-old New Zealander was targeting NASCAR. Team owner Roger Penske had proven receptive to that concept, too.

Asked how McLaughlin’s eagerness for U.S. competition had suddenly morphed from NASCAR into a potential IndyCar opportunity, Cindric replied: “Well, we talked to Scott about racing in America, and told him that before we even thought about that, we needed to win the Supercars championship and we needed to win Bathurst. Beyond that, we asked him what he would like to try out, and his response was that he would be happy trying anything.

“When we looked at the IndyCar schedule and the Supercars schedule, and the time it takes to become a top-tier driver in IndyCar compared with NASCAR, open-wheel became maybe more appealing. That was interesting for all of us, because there are more possibilities for doing a parallel program.

“I also spoke to Dario Franchitti about it because he came through the DTM ranks, then went to IndyCar and then tried NASCAR for a bit. He has a good understanding of a potential career path for a guy like with a touring car background. The feeling is that a top driver should be able to get on top of IndyCar sooner because of the data that’s available, so long as they have good teammates to draw from.

“Dario and others agreed that someone of Scott’s caliber would be better off going straight into IndyCar rather than looking at lower-tier open-wheel formulas. And as you know, a lot of drivers have tried hopping into NASCAR and being successful and had some struggles. And Dario is one of those guys so it was good to have that conversation to check we were approaching it the best way we possibly could.

“But of course Scott’s got to also think about whether he wants to change careers. That doesn’t mean there’s necessarily an opportunity but if there’s an opportunity to try this or that without being fully committed, that’s a lot better than just jumping off the cliff.”

Impressed with the test

Cindric said McLaughlin’s pace and aptitude at Sebring over the course of 140 laps had left him impressed.

“I didn’t know what to expect, to be honest. He had never driven an open-wheel car before, let alone an IndyCar, so I knew the learning curve was going to be pretty steep. And of course the first day out at Sebring in the new year isn’t the easiest thing to do. But we accomplished what we’d hoped to do which is introduce him to an IndyCar.”

While Robert Wickens redefined what a touring car ace might hope to achieve in an IndyCar, when the Canadian switched to DTM in 2012, he already had a very successful single-seater career behind him, including finishing as runner-up in the 2010 GP3 championship and winning the 2011 Formula Renault 3.5 Series title. McLaughlin, by contrast, has been a touring car specialist.

While Ed Carpenter Racing’s new signing, Indy Lights runner-up Rinus VeeKay topped the four-car test with a 52.3sec lap, and Lights champion Oliver Askew set a 52.8sec in the Arrow McLaren SP-Chevy, McLaughlin was just a further half second away with a 53.3.

“From a lap-time standpoint, we had never been there with the aeroscreen nor tested with the revised weight distribution that causes, so it was difficult for Scott – 1) because he didn’t have a teammate there to compare notes with, and 2) we didn’t really have anything to compare it to from an expectation or lap time standpoint.

“So if we were within a second of those guys, I felt like we were successful for what we were trying to achieve.

“But what impressed me most is that we did a longer run at the end of the day and he was really consistent. You know how it is at Sebring but we never had to tow him in, he kept all the corners on it, all the wings on it and he just got the job done. That was impressive. We weren’t expecting anything less, but… you never know, because apart from time on the simulator, he didn’t know what to expect either.”

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