Kyle Larson earning respect from IndyCar field despite rain-shortened practices

INDIANAPOLIS — Kyle Larson hardly had a chance at redemption after “probably the worst night” in his storied sprint car career.

But as his May officially began at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, his Monday night miscues hardly mattered to his new open-wheel peers, who remain just as impressed with the racing superstar who flipped in a heat race and failed to advance from the C main at Kokomo Speedway (about 90 minutes north of the Brickyard).

The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion, who is attempting to become the fifth driver to run the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 in the same day, was back at it Tuesday morning in Indy driving the No. 17 Dallara-Chevrolet for Arrow McLaren, which is fielding the car in a joint partnership with Hendrick Motorsports.

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Larson turned only two laps before the skies opened less than 25 minutes into the opening day of practice for the 108th Indy 500, and the rest of the eight-hour session was canceled. The limited track time comes on the heels of rain washing out nearly all of a two-day test at IMS last month.

Of the past 24 hours of scheduled practice for the Indy 500, barely two hours have been completed because of inclement weather. That means Larson has made only 49 laps on the 2.5-mile oval this year when he probably should have at least a few hundred — but he still was enthused about finally kicking off a project that was announced Jan. 12, 2023.

“It‘s good to finally have the Indy 500 here,” he said. “It‘s been a lot of waiting. Just happy to get this experience underway. The weather is getting in the middle of things today, but once we get through today, it should be good.”

It certainly was better than his latest moonlighting venture in the High Limit Racing series that he co-owns. Larson qualified poorly and then barrel-rolled into a crash after being “desperate and overly aggressive” trying to finish fifth and transfer to the main event.

“Yeah, just a bad night,” he said Tuesday morning in the pit lane at IMS. “Probably the worst night I think we’ve ever had sprint car racing with (car owner) Paul Silva. So yeah, that was disappointing. … I just ran us out of room and flipped myself.”

A.J. Foyt Racing‘s Santino Ferrucci, who finished third in last year‘s Indy 500, has gotten to know Larson as a part-time NASCAR driver in 2021-22 and as an entrant at the Chili Bowl, the famous dirt race for Midget cars in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that Larson has won twice.

Ferrucci once got knocked out by a flip at the Chili Bowl and “wasn‘t right for a good three, four months” but said the impact was softer with a winged car such as Larson‘s Monday night.

He gave Larson credit for quickly getting back on the horse at Indy.

“I’d love to be out there running Kokomo and doing all that stuff in dirt racing, but I just don’t have the ability to not be a danger to myself,” Ferrucci said with a laugh. “I didn’t grow up dirt racing, so it’s going to do more harm for me than good, but for someone like that that just lives that lifestyle, I mean it’s damn impressive. He’s a true racer.

“He’ll be good (at the Indy 500), man. I mean, he likes a loose race car. I think once he gets the understanding, which he’ll pick it up quick, man, he’s a racer. He’ll be fast. So it’ll be just about keeping him tame.”

During his brief time at the Brickyard last month, Larson turned the second-fastest lap in the Indy 500 test behind defending winner Josef Newgarden. Though he chalked it up to “a tow” (Indy 500 terminology for following in the draft of another car and increasing your speed), Larson still has done enough to impress the rest of the field. And in Arrow McLaren, he will be driving for a team that qualified all of its cars in the first three rows of the 33-car field last year.

NASCAR champion Kyle Larson looks on from pit wall during Indianapolis 500 practice.
NASCAR champion Kyle Larson looks on from pit wall during Indianapolis 500 practice.

Graham Rahal, who is slated to make his 17th Indy 500 start, said there‘s “no doubt” that Larson could become the first to win the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 (none of the four drivers — Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, Robby Gordon and the late John Andretti — has finished higher than third in either race).

“It’s not like he’s in a slow car here, and 90 percent of the Indy 500 is having a fast car, maybe more,” Rahal said. “So I think I think he’s going to be in a great position. Obviously, we know the Hendrick cars are damn good too.

“But also Kyle is supremely talented. He’ll probably even tell you I texted him maybe four or five years ago saying I’d love to see him get an opportunity to come and run the 500. Obviously, with (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing) being a Honda, that was never going to be a reality for us no matter what. But he’s got all the talent in the world. It wouldn’t be a shock, particularly in the situation with McLaren, that he comes in and is very freaking good.”

Four-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves noted that Larson also has the benefit of being advised by 2013 Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan, the sporting director at Arrow McLaren.

“He has amazing experience and people in his corner,” Castroneves said. “One of them is Tony, and that’s going to help tremendously to speed up that process. He’ll be good. He definitely understands the game, and it’ll be fun to battle with him.”

Kyle Larson drives on track in the No. 17 during opening practice for the Indianapolis 500 on May 14, 2024 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Kyle Larson drives on track in the No. 17 during opening practice for the Indianapolis 500 on May 14, 2024 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Larson was ready to take it slow with the learning process, though — perhaps especially after his unusually embarrassing Monday night in a sprint car (“I suck,” Larson bluntly told a trackside reporter at Kokomo).

Shortly after exiting his car when the rain came to IMS, he was anticipating how many questions he would have over the next five days. Wednesday‘s practice session was extended by two hours to 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

There will be six-hour sessions Thursday and Friday before qualifying Saturday and Sunday (which Larson will sandwich into jetting back and forth to North Wilkesboro for the All-Star Race.

“Every time I leave pit lane, there‘s something new that clicks or a question arises,” he said. “I‘m sure it‘ll be that same way the next few days, then eventually you‘ll get comfortable and fine-tune your brain to be more relaxed. Right now, everything is happening kind of quickly. Just pit lane stuff, like it‘s so busy, and my awareness is super high. But I think as I get more comfortable with that, it‘ll just become second nature hopefully and all the on-track stuff will hopefully be fine.”

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.