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May 19, 2024

Kyle Larson on the move — in speedy Indianapolis 500 qualifying, then to North Wilkesboro for All-Star Race

INDIANAPOLIS — After a few minutes of politely answering questions from a throng of reporters contorting themselves around riot barriers a few feet from his No. 17 Dallara-Chevrolet, Kyle Larson smiled.

“Everything about Indy is a great atmosphere,” he said. “Now I’m ready to go drive a stock car. So I’ll talk to you guys later.”

And with that, the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion was on the move.

Tossing a brief hello to his parents, Mike and Janet, Larson made a hard left into the base of Victory Circle while being ushered by a few Indianapolis Motor Speedway security officers. He signed a few autographs while barely breaking a brisk stride to meet up with a Hendrick Motorsports contingent that included Jeff Gordon and Jeff Andrews.

PHOTOS: Kyle Larson at Indianapolis Motor Speedway

With fans screaming their approval from atop the Tower Terrace grandstands (“We love you, baby! Let’s go Larson!”), Larson and his entourage took a few more dozen steps to the entrance of the media center where two Suburbans conveniently were waiting with engines idling.

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Larson and Gordon climbed into the red SUV, which began rolling through the infield to a helipad on the Brickyard Crossing golf course outside Turn 2.

From the time he exited his race car to when he effectively began leaving the property, the entire process took less than 20 minutes. It was another moment of peak efficiency at the Brickyard for Larson, who is attempting to become the fifth driver to race the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 in the same day.

His bid at history has been going quite swimmingly.

“I’m just happy because it’s really cool,” he said. “It’s gone much better than I ever could have anticipated or ever hoped. Just proud of everybody at Arrow McLaren. Proud of everybody at Hendrick Motorsports. Thankful for Rick Hendrick and Linda Hendrick for allowing me to do this.

“Yeah, it’s been a great week so far. So we’ll look forward to now switching to race mode and see if I can learn there to get ready for the race.”

Larson could have been talking about where he was heading — the All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro Speedway, where he was hustling to defend his win in the $1 million event.

But he actually meant the 108th Indy 500, which he will start fifth as a rookie after advancing to the final round of qualifying Sunday.

After the All-Star Race, Larson was heading straight back to Indianapolis for an 11 a.m.-1 p.m. practice Monday on the 2.5-mile oval as the focus shifts toward getting comfortable in traffic at 230 mph. Larson will have one more opportunity Friday in the two-hour Carb Day final practice.

He was eager to work on his racecraft with practice being truncated by a couple dozen hours this week because of rain. But Larson also was ready to say goodbye to the nerve-wracking experience of Indy 500 qualifying, which constitutes the speed average of four white-knuckle laps around the 2.5-mile oval.

Kyle Larson's No. 17 Chevrolet spits up smoke as it pulls away
Photo courtesy of IndyCar

“I’m happy to not have to run another qualifying run,” said Larson, who made four 10-mile runs over the past two days. “I’ll be honest, it wasn’t that stressful (at first), but then each time you go out, it gets more stressful because you know they’re going to turn the (turbo boost) more. You know you’re trying to find that extra bit of speed.

“In my mind of someone who doesn’t have experience, you think it’s going to be harder to drive. So just the nerves going out each time is more and more every time. I’m glad we made it through it, I’m glad I don’t have to run another four laps in qualifying trim.”

A weekend crowd of nearly 90,000 — the largest for Indy 500 qualifying in more than a decade — was on hand to watch as Larson never put a wheel wrong — though he did have a big moment between Turns 1 and 2 on a practice lap Sunday.

Two hours later, Larson drew one of the largest ovations from the crowd during the Fast 12 when he topped Arrow McLaren teammate Pato O’Ward and Indy 500 winners Takuma Sato and Ryan Hunter-Reay.

“People used to ask me or say to me, ‘Can you believe Kyle Larson?’ and I used to think the same way, but I don’t anymore,” Gordon said after Larson advanced to the pole shootout. “He just always steps up, and it’s fun to watch, fun to be a part of this whole experience.”

Now the question will turn to whether Larson can win the May 26 race — amid increasing belief that perhaps he could.

“Well, so far he’s shown that he’s very comfortable,” Mario Andretti said. “That young man has the ability to really converge, and I think he’ll be a factor for sure in the race. He’s a racer. That’s it. He didn’t come here just to drive. He came here to win, and he’s going to put his best foot forward for sure.”

That’ll be while he’s trying to win a couple of races in North Carolina, too, starting with Sunday night’s All-Star Race. NASCAR helped out by pushing back the green flag by 16 minutes, allowing Larson to arrive nearly an hour ahead to prepare for a race that will feature an option tire, a fresh asphalt surface and many other unknowns.

Larson has been on the phone from Indy with Kevin Harvick (his substitute driver Friday) and crew chief Cliff Daniels to get his bearings.

“I actually look forward to the challenge of having zero laps there and trying to figure it out quickly,” he said. “So it should be a good time.”

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.