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May 24, 2024

Waiting game: Indianapolis 500 forecast creates multiple ‘Double’ scenarios for Kyle Larson

Kyle Larson raises his hands in a wave while walking down pit road at Indianapolis Motor Speedway

INDIANAPOLIS — The fifth driver to attempt racing the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 in the same day, Kyle Larson has a shot at becoming the first to win either — or perhaps even both.

But there’s some personal history the Hendrick Motorsports superstar would like to avoid making Sunday.

Over two decades of participating in literally thousands of races in various series and vehicles, Larson recalls no instance in which he started a race and was forced to exit the cockpit because of inclement weather or a scheduling conflict.

“I don’t think so,” Larson said before final practice for the 108th Indy 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “So hopefully, we keep it that way.”

Two days removed from his Indy 500 debut, the biggest question mark about the 2021 NASCAR Cup champion’s bid at racing immortality has shifted from can it happen to if and when will it happen.

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An iffy forecast Sunday morning in Indianapolis has prompted a wave of virtually endless and unanswerable questions for what’s been dubbed “The H1100.”

If the Indy 500’s 12:45 p.m. ET green flag is delayed by rain, how long can Larson wait for the race to begin before heading to Charlotte Motor Speedway?

If he starts a delayed Indy 500, would he get out before the checkered flag to make a dash to take the green for the Coca-Cola 600?

Or would he stay at the Brickyard for the duration and risk missing the start of the 600 (and potentially jeopardizing his Cup playoff eligibility that is contingent on starting all 26 regular-season races)?

It’s a decision that ultimately will be made by team owner Rick Hendrick, whose automotive empire sponsors both the No. 5 Chevrolet in Cup and the No. 17 Dallara-Chevrolet fielded jointly in the Indy 500 by Hendrick Motorsports and the Arrow McLaren IndyCar team.

And with the infamously fickle Indiana weather, it’s unlikely a call will be made until absolutely necessary. Hendrick said earlier this week that “we’re going to let it play out, and we’ll make that decision Sunday,” and Larson still was resigned to that waiting game during an Indy 500 Media Day session Thursday.

“Sure, yeah, it’s stressful because weather is always unpredictable,” he said. “But you just don’t really know until it’s happening. So it’s hard to plan for weather. You can have all these plans and backup plans and backup plans for the backup plan. But you just can’t really do anything or react until it’s kind of the moment.

“That’s what’s a little bit stressful. Yeah, it doesn’t look too promising for Indy on Sunday, but I think for me where I sit, if it’s going to rain, I hope it rains all day. That way it can just get pushed to Monday or something, and then Charlotte is not going to rain, I just hope it doesn’t rain. Again, it’s weather. The forecast changes kind of every day.”

MORE: Projected Coca-Cola 600 results

The good news is that aside from a few hiccups, Larson continued to make progress Friday in the final Carb Day practice.

Though he brought out a yellow with 15 minutes remaining in the two-hour session by running out of fuel on track, Larson was towed back to the pits without incident. He enjoyed another productive session in navigating traffic, ranking 13th fastest (224.761 mph) of 33 drivers while turning 74 laps. That came on the heels of 70 laps in a two-hour practice Monday on the 2.5-mile oval where he will attempt to make 200 laps Sunday.

“I thought my car handling was good,” said Larson, who also practiced pit stops. “I didn’t suck up as good as Monday. The pit stop stuff just was getting familiar with that. It’s different from a NASCAR pit stop, and I felt comfortable with all that. We checked a lot of boxes off. I’m sure there are more things I can do to generate runs, and I’ll talk to my teammates about what I can do.”

Aside from Alexander Rossi, Pato O’Ward and Callum Ilott, Larson had a small army of team members to lean on Friday.

Kyle Larson looks on during qualifying at Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Joe Skibinski | Penske Entertainment

With his Cup team off Friday (practice and qualifying for the Coke 600 will begin Saturday at 5:05 p.m.), 18 members of the No. 5 crew hopped a Hendrick jet Friday morning from North Carolina to Indy and spent the day in Gasoline Alley.

An hour after practice, Larson and crews for the Indy 500 and Coke 600 gathered for photos around the No. 17 at its garage stall.

“It’s really special,” said Cliff Daniels, the crew chief for Larson’s Cup team. “First, thank you to Mr. Hendrick and everyone at Arrow McLaren just for giving us the opportunity to come experience this world. Our team is a team of racers, and they have a lot of passion for it, and to be able to be there and experience what we are today, it’s really special. And Kyle has obviously done a great job.

“Hats off to this team. They’ve done an amazing job with a little bit of a slow start to (last) week and getting behind. They rebounded and had an amazing qualifying effort. And just to see Kyle be so natural in this environment. It’s been a lot of fun to be a part of, the team is communicating great. They’re executing a really good day today, too, to get them ready for Sunday, so it’s been a lot of fun to be part of. We all knew his natural talent and ability is, of course, there.”

Another familiar face has been Hendrick Motorsports technical director Brian Campe, who has been embedded with the Arrow McLaren team since last week and will call Larson’s strategy in the Indy 500.

PHOTOS: A history of double duty

Arrow McLaren sporting director Tony Kanaan, the 2013 Indy 500 winner, has been at Larson’s side constantly the past two weeks to offer advice and a sounding board for the transition.

“There are a lot of folks helping him out, coaching him,” Daniels said. “I know his teammates at Arrow McLaren have been helping him a lot as well. That environment, and just putting all those resources and people together to help him, he’s been soaking it up like a sponge. And he’s been adaptive and reactive and learning the whole time. He’s communicated a lot of that with me. It’s been fun to be part of, there’s new things he’s learning. Different lingo, different ways to talk about his approach and strategy that he enjoys so much.

“He’s such a racing purist that getting in and grinding out the week and the strategy and the practice and all that is right up his alley, and he’s been doing a great job with that.”

Larson will start fifth Sunday as he tries to become only the second driver to complete all 1,100 miles of both races since Tony Stewart in 2001.

Stewart drove at Indy that year for Chip Ganassi, who has his own history with Larson after giving him his first Cup ride 10 years ago.

“I’m not the least bit surprised with how he’s doing,” Ganassi said of Larson before practice Friday. “I think he’ll do great. I think if he can get in and out of the pits, he’ll be fine. I look forward to him to do very well here. I hope he does. I just hope I’m in front of him.”

Larson just hopes for clear weather and fast cars Sunday. He concedes that there would be pluses and minuses if the Indy 500 were postponed to Monday.

“There would be a level of disappointment,” he said. “There would also be a level of happiness because you have time to recover and all that. But in my mind, it wouldn’t feel quite like ‘The Double.’

“I would love for it to be two sunny days in both places and get all 1,100 miles in or at least attempt both races in the same day.”

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.