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May 18, 2024

After mechanical misfire, Kyle Larson among fastest in Indianapolis 500 qualifying

Kyle Larson, wearing sunglasses, stands in the paddock at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Paul Hurley
Penske Entertainment

INDIANAPOLIS Qualifying started for the Indianapolis 500, and it took more than three hours (and one deflating misfire) before Kyle Larson had logged an official speed in the record book.

If that seems an agonizing and tense wait for making your debut at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, you dont know Kyle Larson very well.

I wasn’t too stressed out after not getting to complete that first run,” he said while standing at the base of Victory Circle at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Yeah. I mean, to this point, it’s been a really fun experience. I’ve never gotten to compete in a qualifying day like this. So it’s honestly pretty relaxing. I feel like everybody talks about how stressful it is, which maybe if your car speed wasn’t there, it’d be more stressful. Or if we had another issue, then you’d begin to stress. But I feel like when you do multiple runs, it just calms the nerves for me anyway.

His blood might be pumping Sunday when the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion will be among the 12 drivers who take a shot at trying to win the pole position for the 108th Indianapolis 500. The Hendrick Motorsports star, who will attempt to become the fifth driver to race the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, posted the seventh-fastest four-lap average at 232.563 mph in his No. 17 Dallara-Chevrolet.

Kyle‘s one of the best drivers I‘ve ever worked with for sure, without a doubt, said Arrow McLaren team principal Gavin Ward, a veteran of Formula One, who also has been the lead engineer for two-time IndyCar champion and defending Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden. I can‘t believe how well he‘s done here. I‘m over the moon, the team at Arrow McLaren is over the moon, and Hendrick Motorsports is absolutely over the moon with how things have gone from here. We‘ll just keep trying to execute from here.

The speeds of the Fast 12 will be reset for another round of four-lap attempts starting at 3 p.m. ET. Then, the fastest six drivers will square off for the Indy 500 pole in a final round that will begin at 5:25 p.m. ET.

Kyle Larson drives at Indianapolis.
Walt Kuhn | Penske Entertainment

And if he makes it through all of that, Larson then has to hop on a Hendrick jet and hustle to Sunday nights All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro Speedway. Its wheels up for North Carolina at 6:20 p.m., about 25 minutes after the pole winner will be determined.

It’s really cool, but it makes the windows a lot tighter for (Sunday), Larson said with a laugh about making the Fast 12 in his Indy 500 debut. But yeah, I think it’s something to be proud of, for sure, on my part a little bit. But qualifying is about the team. And they brought a fast race car. So Im proud of everybody’s effort.

It had been an inauspicious start for Larson and his three teammates at Arrow McLaren, which was unable to post an official qualifying speed until nearly three hours into the qualifying session.

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As the sixth driver to make an attempt after qualifying started at 11 a.m. ET, Larson easily was on pace to secure a spot in the 33-car grid until the last of his four laps around the 2.5-mile oval. Thats when he suddenly lost power because of a plenum fire in his Chevy engine a misfire that causes a drop in engine torque. The only remedy is to lift off the accelerator to extinguish the small fire. Larson did that, but he also pulled off the track instead of taking the checkered flag, which aborted his attempt.

The car slowed down, and I didn’t know what to do, he said. And then there was miscommunication. I guess they told me just to complete my lap, but I thought they told me to abort the lap.

If I had known what to do in that circumstance, I could have just lifted and went back to (the accelerator) and completed a belowaverage run, but at least it would have probably been enough to be in the show at that point. But it didnt matter anyway.

Thats because Larson cooly put together a swift second run that sandwiched him between the Hondas of eighttime IndyCar winner Colton Herta and six-time IndyCar polesitter Felix Rosenqvist. While he didnt make any adjustments to his car, Larson had a smooth shifting pattern while hitting the buttons to adjust weight distribution on the straightaway before corner entry.

I feel like I executed a better run (than the first time), he said. You’re just being more comfortable with hitting buttons and watching for shift lights and things like that, The first run, I mean I felt like I executed it good, too. I was just more like having to think about it and really pay attention more. So it just became a little bit more natural.

He was multitasking at a top-end speed of nearly 240 mph with an extra 100 horsepower from an added turbo boost (which will be removed after qualifying weekend for the race). But Larson was surprised to be relatively unfazed by going faster than he ever had in a race car.

The whole time when I found out about me doing the Indy 500. I was like, Man, that boost is going to be crazy, he said. And watching qualifying last year when you see the mph, you‘re like, Holy (crap)! Like that’s got to feel crazy, but when you have the grip there, it doesn’t feel like you’re going 20 mph faster. That’s what’s been like the weirdest thing for me to try and get used to is Ill make a run that doesn’t really feel that fast. And then I come in and our number is towards the top of the pylon. So it’s a little bit weird.

Kyle Larson climbs into his car to qualify for the Indianapolis 500.
Chris Owens | Penske Entertainment

He might feel a little more harried Sunday when he will be trying to qualify an Indy car in one state and race a stock car in another. Though the forecast has improved for Sunday at North Wilkesboro, Larson was hoping for a potential postponement of the All-Star Race to Monday night. He is scheduled to practice in traffic from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday at the Brickyard.

However the schedule unfolds, Larsons NASCAR team will be ready. On hand in Indy to witness Larsons qualifying debut were Hendrick president Jeff Andrews and chief operating officer Jeff Gordon, a record five-time winner at the Brickyard. The No. 17 entourage drew a large crowd wherever they walked Saturday at Indy, but Larson was the center of attention.

I definitely feel way more popular here just because I’m doing something unique, he said. I’ve tried to take as much time and sign autographs and take pictures for fans. I feel like I’ve signed more than a thousand autographs since I’ve been here, so it’s been enjoyable.

“It’s been special for me to experience this, but I think what makes it even more enjoyable for me is like getting to have all these other people experience it with me. Jeff Gordon, Jeff Andrews, and we’ll have Rick Hendrick here next week. My (Cup) team is going to come on Carb Day (next Friday). My family, my kids, friends, like anybody who’s close to me. Getting to come here and enjoy in the experience as well has been very nice.

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.