The reigning Supercars champion was firmly in the hunt to win The Great Race on Sunday with his co-driver, Tim Slade performing well as the 100-lap mark approached.
But an untimely safety car on Lap 98 pulled the rug from beneath the pair and left McLaughlin with too much to do in the race’s closing stages.
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All drivers must complete a minimum 54 laps — a mark Slade was just one lap short of when both Brad Jones Racing cars took each other out, leading to a safety car.
That forced teams into pitting slightly earlier than planned and left Shell V-Power with a decision to make; extend Slade’s stint, or complete two more slow driver changes while the leaders only complete one.
The team opted to send Slade out again, extending his responsibilities to 71 laps while reducing the category’s premiere driver, McLaughlin, to 90.
“That could not be worse for Slade or anyone else who has not cleared their 54 requirement,” commentator Neil Crompton said at the time.
“What a drama, it’s the same deal every year here, isn’t it?”
Mark Skaife added: “It certainly is a nightmare when things like that unfold. He was one lap away (from passing his requirement).”
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During those extra gruelling laps for Slade, he began to battle cramp and he slipped more than 14 seconds off the lead before eventually handing the car back to McLaughlin, who brought it home in fifth.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have joked about doing my 54 laps and putting my feet up and watching Scotty for the rest of the day,” Slade joked when he got out of the car.
He added: “With the lack of running in the lead up, there’s a fair size difference between Scotty and I, so limited opportunity to get comfy in the car.
“It was good enough for a stint or two there but it was killing me at the end, my back and whatever else.”
McLaughlin drove hard in the race’s closing stages and was closing the gap — even before two late safety cars. But track position is king at the mountain and McLaughlin was powerless to launch a late assault as Shane van Gisbergen won the race ahead of Cameron Waters and Chaz Mostert.
The race may have been McLaughlin’s last as a full-time Supercars driver as he pursues a career in IndyCar.
He makes his IndyCar debut in Florida later this month before a decision is made on his full-time future.
“I’ve done everything I wanted to achieve regardless of how (the IndyCar race at) St Pete goes. I know right now I’ve got to grab this opportunity with both hands.
“It’s not an audition I’d say but I can’t be a bit of a gumby. I’ve got to go out there and drive as fast as I can and acquaint myself the best I can.
“But I said I want to win a Bathurst and a championship and be a consistent frontrunner.
“If it is (the end), then I’m completely satisfied.”