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May 16, 2024

Kyle Larson ‘behind’ at Indy 500 practice, shifts focus toward qualifying

Kyle Larson drives in practice for the Indy 500.
Joe Skibinski
Penske Entertainment

INDIANAPOLIS — Kyle Larson’s Gasoline Alley garage stall was drawing its usual crowd Thursday morning at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

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Scenes of Kyle Larson at Indianapolis 500 practice Scenes of Kyle Larson at Indianapolis 500 practice

But this intense group was all business compared to the throngs of festive onlookers usually fixated on the NASCAR Cup Series champion’s every move as he prepares to qualify for his Indianapolis 500 debut.

After a precautionary engine change, Arrow McLaren team members scurried around the No. 17 Dallara-Chevrolet from the minute the IndyCar garage opened at 8 a.m. for an extended practice session starting two hours later.

Larson missed the opening bell but was on track by 11:26 a.m. — making only a few laps before fellow rookie Linus Lundqvist smacked the SAFER barrier at the exit of Turn 2 (the Swedish driver for Chip Ganassi Racing was OK after the hit).

By 2 p.m., Larson still had completed only 11 laps, ranking last on the speed chart among 34 drivers with a best lap at 219.079 mph (because he hadn’t been drafting yet in the traffic that produces much faster speeds).

“We’ve been a little behind,” Larson said. “Just because we got behind, we missed the drafting runs, so now we’re just back to qualifying sims to experience that.”

Fans look on as the Arrow McLaren team work on Kyle Larson's Indy 500 entry in the garage.
Matt Fraver | Penske Entertainment

Thursday was the last scheduled practice day this week with race setups. Teams will be given turbo boost Friday, adding 100 horsepower that will bring the average speeds to more than 235 mph during qualifying sessions Saturday and Sunday for the 108th Indy 500.

With the track open for only three hours of practice the past two days because of rain, Larson and his one-off team were left playing catchup as the daunting prospect loomed of a four-lap qualifying run around the 2.5-mile oval.

Described by many as the toughest 10 miles in motorsports, qualifying for the Indy 500 can be like landing a plane in a heavy crosswind. While hanging on at top speeds of 240 mph, drivers are required to push buttons and turn knobs on the wheel as their engineers talk them through adjustments to optimize weight distribution and engine mapping for maximum results.

Though he has practiced on the simulator in GM Motorsports’ Charlotte Technical Center that is adjacent to Hendrick Motorsports in Concord, North Carolina, Larson began focusing on getting acclimated to qualifying Thursday afternoon (albeit without the turbo boost).

“Yeah, I just don’t really know what to expect with the boost and all that, just going through the motions of I guess hitting buttons on our steering wheel and turning knobs and stuff will be interesting,” he said. “It’s been good so far these couple of days. I just need some more laps.

“There’s still a lot left to learn and get comfortable with, but so far I feel like it’s gone pretty smooth for me. Getting some drafting runs in (Wednesday) just to be familiar with everything.”

Larson also is trying to tame the slowest section of the track. He was given a drive-through penalty Wednesday for speeding on pit lane and also has wrestled with some false starts on exit.

“I keep screwing up leaving the pit stall and getting into the anti-stall, so I have to get better on my end there,” he said. “But yeah, just try to keep getting reps so all the little things are more natural and simple for race day.

“I think we’re done with race runs until I’m guessing next week. So yeah, that’s kind of a bummer. I wish I would have got some more time drafting, but I’m guessing Monday (practice) will be some more of that and obviously (Carb Day final practice May 24). So still a lot of opportunity, a lot of hours left to get all that, but you now kind of switch your mindset to qualifying and what that is and what to feel and all that.”

Kyle Larson prepares to practice for the Indy 500.
Joe Skibinski | Penske Entertainment

Rain is in the forecast again for Friday, which could limit his exposure to the turbo boost. That will have little impact on the amount of attention he has been garnering as he tries to become the fifth Cup driver to run the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day.

When practice finally began Wednesday, a few dozen fans were gawking from behind his timing stand while the rest of pit lane was virtually empty.

Indianapolis native Conor Daly, who will be attempting his 11th Indy 500 this year, has noticed the impact that the latest NASCAR crossover is having.

“When I get deep into the comments sections of like my podcasts and stuff, there is a lot of excitement about Kyle Larson,” said Daly, a co-host of the Speed Street podcast for Dirty Mo Media. “I am excited about Kyle Larson. I’ve noticed the most viewed episodes of my podcast are with Kyle Larson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“So NASCAR is so powerful, you need to have some sort of this crossover that’s going to be helpful, right? It’s got to be helpful for us. We have to embrace it.”

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The crossover would be amplified if Larson is in the running for the pole position Sunday before heading to North Wilkesboro Speedway for the NASCAR All-Star Race.

The 12 fastest drivers from Saturday’s qualifications will advance to two rounds of Indy 500 pole qualifying Sunday. Arrow McLaren put all four of its Chevys in the Fast 12 last year, and Larson tentatively says that’s the objective.

“The team sent me (a list) since like 2018 of where rookies qualified just to kind of have a goal in mind, I guess, and there really hasn’t been too many rookies to qualify that good,” he said. “If I could make the Fast 12, I think that would be a pretty good accomplishment for us and a pieced-together team.”

Nate Ryan has written about NASCAR since 1996 while working at the San Bernardino Sun, Richmond Times-Dispatch, USA TODAY and for the past 10 years at NBC Sports Digital. He is the host of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast and also has covered various other motorsports, including the IndyCar and IMSA series.