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Kyle Larson qualifies fifth for Indy 500 debut, then flies to NASCAR All-Star Race and finishes 4th

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — NASCAR star Kyle Larson looked like an Indianapolis 500 veteran Sunday, reaching the final round of pole qualifying and putting his No. 17 Arrow McLaren on the second row for his debut in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” next weekend.

Larson's four-lap average of 232.846 mph was fifth in the six-car shootout. He will start behind an all-Team Penske front row of Scott McLaughlin, who set a pole qualifying record at 234.220 mph, Will Power and defending race winner Josef Newgarden.

Larson's teammate, Alexander Rossi, will be on his inside with Santino Ferrucci of A.J. Foyt Racing on his outside.

“Qualifying went a lot better than I ever could have hoped or anticipated," said Larson, who will try to become the second driver to complete “The Double” on May 26 by running every lap of the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day.

“Just a great team, really," he added, "and they prepared an awesome race car that stuck to the race track that also has speed.”

By making the pole shootout, Larson was able to give his whirlwind Memorial Day weekend trip a practice run. He arrived in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, about three hours after climbing out of his car in time for the start of NASCAR's All-Star Race.

Larson quickly walked through Gasoline Alley and into a waiting SUV, which whisked him to a nearby helicopter. That was taking him to an airfield, where Larson got into a private jet en route to Wilkes County Airport.

Another helicopter was there, waiting to give him the final 15-minute lift to North Wilkesboro in time for the green flag. He finished fourth after starting at the back of the field.

NASCAR and TV broadcaster FOX worked with Hendrick Motorsports to provide him a bit of a buffer, announcing shortly before Larson's final qualifying run that they had pushed back the start of the All-Star Race by 16 minutes to 8:30 p.m. EDT.

Chad Knaus, the vice president of competition at Hendrick Motorsports, said there was no backup plan if Larson did not make it in time, which may have played a part in the decision. Larson drives TV ratings as one of NASCAR's biggest stars.

“The car would just sit there and look pretty. We would save it for another event,” Knaus said from North Wilkesboro. “The way things are working out, all of our cards are in getting Kyle here. That’s the plan.”

After rain limited his practice time early in the week, Larson had a nervy first day of qualifying Saturday. An engine issue that Chevrolet struggled with all weekend caused him to scrap his initial attempt. But he returned to the track later and laid down a 232.563 mph four-lap average, putting him sixth quickest among the 34 entries and into the pole mix.

Things were a little dicey again during an hour-long practice Sunday, too. Larson had to abort his first qualifying simulation because of traffic ahead of him on the track. He backed out of his second after experiencing some understeer. But eventually, he put together a quality run that gave him confidence of making the final six going for the pole.

When he ultimately did it, thousands of fans along the front stretch at Indianapolis Motor Speedway stood and cheered.

“We were just sitting up there in the transport of the 48 (car) and watching him run and we were like, ‘My gosh, I can’t believe he is P1.’ And I was like, ‘My goodness, how did that happen?’” Knaus said. “Very limited track time, did a couple of tests (and) was able to go up there, and he holds a pretty good wheel. ... He is a phenomenal talent.”

It will take more than just talent to match the might of Team Penske on race day.

McLaughlin ripped around Indianapolis Motor Speedway shortly after Larson's qualifying run, breaking the four-lap record set by Alex Palou just last year. That also knocked Power and Newgarden down a spot and gave Team Penske the front row.

Larson will start right behind, though. And he long ago convinced those around him that he is capable of nearly anything.

“People used to say to me, ‘Can you believe Kyle Larson?’” said Jeff Gordon, the vice chairman of Hendrick Motorsports, which is working with Arrow McLaren to field the No. 17 car and clapped from the timing stand when his qualifying run ended.

“I used to think the same way but I don't anymore," Gordon said. "He always steps up. He's just fun to watch.”

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AP Sports Writer Steve Reed in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, contributed to this report.

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AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing