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May 23, 2024

Larson’s ‘nonchalant excellence’ to be tested as weight of ‘Double’ draws near

Kyle Larson and Indy 500 trophy
Titus Slaughter
Penske Entertainment

INDIANAPOLIS — In his indomitable way of making the extraordinary seem easy, Kyle Larson downplays his greatness with virtually every flick of a steering wheel among the countless vehicles he races.

“It’s honestly pretty relaxing doing it like this,” Larson said during his Indianapolis 500 qualifying debut — a typically pithy statement that he could apply to any motorsports challenge that he has accepted (and conquered) in an illustrious career.

“If he’s nervous, he doesn’t show it too much,” team owner Rick Hendrick said about the superstar who will start fifth in his Indy 500 debut. “He just believes in his ability. Once he gets in the car and gets comfortable, he wants to race.”

Alexander Rossi at Indianapolis 500 pole day in 2024
James Black | Penske Entertainment

Said 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi, who has known Larson for 20 years dating to their California racing origins and now as his teammate at Arrow McLaren: “In terms of working with him, it’s pretty straightforward because everything for him is just ‘good.’ It’s kind of weird.

“It’s like, ‘Is anything ever bad?’ He’s like, ‘Not yet.’ OK, sweet.”

That nonchalant excellence is the essence of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion’s greatness.

But there’ll be no escaping the greatness at stake Sunday when he will attempt to become the fifth driver to race the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day.

The echoes of auto racing immortality are omnipresent everywhere Larson has been the past two weeks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

An interview session was held in the former Formula One garages where seven-time F1 champion Michael Schumacher was based for his record five victories on the IMS road course.

The iconic pit lane where Larson has climbed into his No. 17 Dallara-Chevrolet and ripped off 230-mph laps is the same place that minted household names such as Andretti, Foyt and Unser over the past 113 years.

On what’s labeled “The Greatest Day in Motorsports,” Larson, 31, can take a massive step in affirming he’s the premier talent of his generation.

In nine previous tries at racing an Indy car and a stock car back-to-back on the country’s two biggest circuits, no one has come close to victories in either.

If Larson manages to win at the Brickyard, and even more so if he then triumphs at Charlotte Motor Speedway, he can lay claim to being one of the greatest drivers of all time and certainly one of the best currently on Earth.

After winning what’s generally considered the world’s biggest sprint car race (Knoxville Nationals), biggest midget event (the Chili Bowl) and some of NASCAR’s biggest crown jewels, an Indy 500 victory decisively would put Larson in the same breath as Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt.

Andretti has lobbied for years that Larson deserves a shot at Indy and believes that “he’ll be a factor for sure” Sunday at the Brickyard. The only man to win the Daytona 500, Indy 500 and a Formula One championship said an Indy 500 win for Larson would be the apex of racing versatility.

“What really always motivated me was that our sport is rich of different disciplines at the top level,” Andretti said. “And to be able to move over from where technically your specialty is and go on the other side and win, that’s the ultimate satisfaction in my book. And that’s what he’s been doing. Wherever he has gone, he brings back the results. And that tells the story, quite honestly.”

Mario Andretti at the 2023 Indy 500
Justin Casterline | Getty Images

Since moving into NASCAR’s premier series 10 years ago, Larson proudly has carried the flag of being “The Last Real Racer,” a nod to being known for turning laps until the wee hours on a dirt track in the middle of nowhere and then winning a Cup race the next day on a few hours’ sleep.

It’s a testament to his boundless passion for racing but also indicative of a vast ambition.

In a 2021 interview with NBC Sports’ Dustin Long, Larson said “I don’t want to be just referenced as the greatest NASCAR driver of all time or the greatest sprint car driver of all time, I want to be known as somebody who could climb into all different types of cars and be great at what they do.”

And what does racing the Indy 500 do for those crossover credentials?

Larson has said it would mark “a big step” toward deservedly being compared with his racing heroes.

“I probably strive to do this race even more just because of those guys that people try to compare me to — A.J., Mario, Tony (Stewart) — that race everything,” Larson said while at the Brickyard to attend last year’s Indy 500. “I haven’t raced as many cars as they have. Being able to add an Indy 500 to the resume gets me closer to being compared to them and feeling like I should be compared to them in a way.

“I love racing all types of cars. I feel like the more you can challenge yourself as a driver, the more it helps you grow as a driver, too. So no matter what the results end up being, I think I’m going to be a much better all-around race car driver throughout this experience.”

RELATED: Kyle Larson driver page | Coca-Cola 600 schedule

Stewart has set the gold standard for results in “The Double,” as doing the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 has become known.

In a club that also includes John Andretti, Robby Gordon and Kurt Busch, Stewart is the only driver to have completed all 1,100 miles across both races. That was in 2001 when he led 13 laps of a rain-delayed Indy 500 on the way to sixth and then placed third in the Coke 600 after zipping over to Charlotte Motor Speedway and starting from the rear for missing the drivers meeting.

A longtime champion of Larson since he tore up the vaunted Eldora Speedway (which Stewart owns) in his first visit 13 years ago, the three-time Cup champion known as “Smoke” believes Larson, whom he describes as “a racing unicorn,” can surpass him in “Double” lore.

“Yeah, absolutely, no doubt, he’s got a shot to outperform me,” Stewart said. “To run sixth and third in the two events, he absolutely can blow that record out of the water. He can have a shot to win the Indy 500, and he absolutely has a shot to win the Coke 600.

“He has the potential to do what’s never been done and win both of these races. … He’s just one of those naturally talented guys that you can put him in anything, and he can drive it.”

Busch, the 2004 Cup champion who was named the 2014 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year for finishing sixth in a backup car, was teamed in NASCAR with Larson at Chip Ganassi Racing.

“He’s the guy for the job,” Busch said of Larson. “All of us are fans at some point. And when you hear a guy like Larson running all these different races, he’s the most versatile type of guy that our generation will ever see. Similar to the days of A.J. Foyt or Andretti jumping into anything and having success. So I’m rooting him on.”

Tony Stewart in 2023 at Phoenix Raceway
Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

In addition to his world-beater ability, Larson will have other advantages over Busch and Stewart. The most obvious is preparation: Nearly 18 months will have passed between announcing his bid at history and the green flag on the 108th Indy 500 — far more lead time than any “Double” driver has enjoyed.

Larson also will have the full-fledged support of the most successful team owner in NASCAR history. Rick Hendrick has supplied the planes and helicopters necessary to shuttle Larson between Indianapolis and North Carolina with regularity while also ensuring a seamless sponsor transition.

Chevrolet and Hendrick Cars are backing both entries, helping eliminate the hassles of potential conflicts (Busch’s Indy-Charlotte foray was complicated by racing a Chevy in NASCAR and a Honda in IndyCar) while also creating a clever branding element (“The H1100” as it’s been dubbed by Hendrick Motorsports).

Jeff Gordon
James Gilbert | Getty Images

“What we’ve learned over time is that you’re only as good as the people you surround yourself with, and that’s true with the NASCAR teams,” Hendrick vice chairman Jeff Gordon said. “And I think that’s the same way that we look at this at Indianapolis, especially if Rick’s involved and Hendrick Cars is a sponsor. We just want to make sure that it’s done at the highest level and give Kyle the best opportunity to have a great finish and maybe even win the race.”

The support system in Indianapolis also includes Arrow McLaren sporting director Tony Kanaan. The 2013 Indy 500 winner also is an IndyCar driver whisperer who is helping Larson sift through which data and information is most important for adapting to an Indy car that’s nearly twice as light as his Cup car.

Brian Campe, Hendrick Motorsports’ technical director, is spearheading Larson’s Indy 500 effort. Campe was a Team Penske engineer for Juan Pablo Montoya’s 2015 Indy 500 victory and the 2017 championship by defending Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden.

By speaking fluent IndyCar and NASCAR, he can ensure good communication in the fresh marriage of Larson and Arrow McLaren. “I’ve been there on the radio as someone who can answer, ‘Hey what does this mean?’ and give him some guidance if he gets confused,” Campe said.

In another example of racing symbiosis, Larson does his simulator prep for NASCAR and IndyCar in the same location — the Chevrolet Technical Center that literally is steps from the Hendrick Motorsports campus on the outskirts of Charlotte.

If all this sounds as if the driving might be the easiest part for Larson, Stewart agrees.

“For him to be in the car is where he’s going to be the happiest,” Stewart said. ” It’s all the other things — the tugging, the pulling, the media attention that he’s going to have — those are the roadblocks. As much as it’s for a great purpose, those are the things that weigh on you. He’s not going to have a moment to himself. That’s the hard part.”

Of course, the racing side still will be difficult and also likely require some luck.

Andretti (whose family knows all about misfortune at Indy) has said “The Double” is “a momentous job. It’s so much to ask of a driver to be able to perform 100 percent in both races on the same day. Somewhere along the line, I think you’re going to leave something on the table. It’s impossible to really do both of them well, being realistic, because you have to put so much time into the practice and qualifying and everything else on both sides.

You’re giving up something.”

Fair enough, but …

“If anybody can do it, it’s Kyle Larson,” Gordon said.

Larson’s thoughts about getting what his racing buddies and family view as the chance of a lifetime?

It’s about what you’d expect.

“Because I don’t get too excited about anything, I think for everybody else, it’s a way bigger deal to them than it is probably to me as far as a legacy or whatever,” he said. “So friends and people around me definitely know it’s a bigger deal than I probably realize.

“But I don’t think about any of that right now.”

History of the Double

DriverYearIndy 500 finishCoca-Cola 600 finish
John Andretti199410th36th
Davy Jones199523rdDNQ
Robby Gordon*199729th41st
Tony Stewart19999th4th
Robby Gordon**20006th35th
Tony Stewart20016th3rd
Robby Gordon20028th16th
Robby Gordon200322nd17th
Robby Gordon***200429th20th
Kurt Busch20146th40th

* In 1997, the Indianapolis 500 was run on Monday and Tuesday due to rain.
**In 2000, Robby Gordon was unable to start the Coca-Cola 600 due to a weather delay in Indianapolis. PJ Jones started Gordon’s Cup Series entry, with Gordon taking over after a red flag for rain on Lap 254.
***In 2004, Robby Gordon raced the first 27 laps at Indianapolis until a red flag came out for rain. Gordon chose to leave Indianapolis for Charlotte and was relieved by Jaques Lazier.
(Source: Racing Insights)