NASCAR’s most successful team owner Rick Hendrick excited for his first Indianapolis 500

INDIANAPOLIS – As Hendrick Motorsports celebrates its 40thAnniversary in racing, team owner Rick Hendrick has created the most successful team in NASCAR history.

It has allowed him to be on the starting grid and in the pit area for nearly 40 Daytona 500s with nine victories, celebrate in victory lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway after 10 Brickyard 400 victories and sit at the head table of the NASCAR Cup Series Banquet celebrating one of 14 championships. The team has won 307 races and counting.

He has also competed in Sports Cars, including the famed Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Last year, Hendrick was part of NASCAR’s Garage 56 effort in the 24 Hours of LeMans, experiencing the thrill of the most storied sports car endurance race in the world.

NASCAR: Bank of America ROVAL 400
NASCAR: Bank of America ROVAL 400

On Sunday, May 26, Hendrick will experience the Indianapolis 500 for the first time as a co-entrant of 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Larson’s first effort in the world’s biggest and most famous race.

Hendrick Motorsports has teamed with Arrow McLaren to bring one of the greatest and most diverse talents in racing to the Indianapolis 500.

“I can't thank enough Arrow McLaren and Zak for what they've brought to the table,” Hendrick said. “I've always dreamed of watching that race but never thought I'd have a car in the race, and our sponsor, our company is going to be there, a lot of people. We've got so many people I don't know how we're going to get everybody home. I think we have five airplanes up there.

“But the pageantry, to see the legends of the sport, to see Zak's cars and our car sitting there and the effort that they've put in, I can't believe the speeds that they're going to be racing at. But the pageantry and the pressure…

“Again, I can't say enough about Arrow McLaren and the effort they've put into this car and the relationship we've built.

“Zak and I have been friends forever. We're not going to tell everybody how many years that's been. But I'm excited, I'm nervous, and can't wait to pull the trigger.”

Syndication: The Indianapolis Star
Syndication: The Indianapolis Star

Larson brings interest from NASCAR to the dirt tracks; fans who may not normally follow IndyCar are interested to see how Larson does in the Indy 500.

That was proven during Pole Day for the Indy 500 as 1.145 million viewers watched Sunday’s qualifications on NBC, up 35 percent from the 842,000 that watched Pole Day in 2023.

Larson was a major storyline in qualifications as he easily made the Fast 12 and later the Fast 6 that battled it out for the Indy 500 Pole.

Larson qualified fifth with a four-lap average of 232.846 miles per hour in the No. 17 Chevrolet for Arrow McLaren and was honored by the American Dairy Association of Indiana as the Fastest Rookie of the Year at the Indy 500.

Hendrick, who recently had a knee replacement but scheduled it so he could attend the Indianapolis 500, watched Larson’s qualification effort nervously on television back in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“This knee replacement has been a bigger problem than I thought, but I'll be there Sunday, and I'll be in Charlotte for the 600,” Hendrick said. “Looking forward to getting back.”

Hendrick also experienced the nervous tension and anxiety that is in abundance at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during qualifications.

“It's nerves,” Hendrick said. “Once we got into the final 12, then you've got a sigh of relief. But I'm not used to watching a car go in the corner at 241 miles an hour. I was concerned about -- I knew Kyle was going to push it, so I just wanted to get it over with.

“But it was an amazing effort. He gets out of the car, and I ask him a question, like you'd think he would be excited or -- and he's just kind of like, ‘that's what I do.’”

Hendrick was impressed with Arrow McLaren team principal Gavin Ward and the Arrow McLaren crew for providing Larson with a fast Indy car, one that could potentially win the 108th Indianapolis 500 on Sunday.

“I get to watch teams a lot,” Hendrick explained. “I've been very fortunate to go to and watch Garage 56 run this year, last year, and watch organizations work. The whole group there with Gavin and our guys meshed, and we're proud to wear their colors, they're proud to wear ours. It's just been amazing.

“The pressure running four laps is something I'm not used to. One lap maybe at Daytona or two. It's just biting your fingernails.

“Then I watched guys trying to make the field, and I remember what that feels like. A lot of nerves for a couple of days there.”

F1 Grand Prix of Miami
F1 Grand Prix of Miami

Zak Brown is the CEO of McLaren Racing and splits time between the Formula One effort and some of the major events on the NTT IndyCar Series schedule.

What makes the Indianapolis 500 so unique are the traditions involved, and the risk.

Drivers are asked to run multiple qualification attempts, pushing the car to the very limit of speed. Just a little bit over the line, and the car can end up in the wall.

“The qualifying format, I wish it was just four laps once, but the more competitive you are, you've got to do it a couple more times,” Brown said. “It's a bit of a nail biter, not just the first time, and then you get in.

“I think what was awesome about Kyle, this wasn't for him just about, well, let's get in and be happy with that. It was let's go for it. He certainly did that.”

Larson is on an Arrow McLaren team that includes Alexander Rossi, the winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 when he was with Andretti Global, popular driver Pato O’Ward of Monterrey, Mexico and Callum Ilott of England, who is driving the No. 6 entry at the Indy 500 before turning it over to Frenchman Theo Pourchaire for the remainder of the season.

“His teammates are very much enjoying racing with him,” Brown said. “The atmosphere, which is what I think is important in any racing team and environment for everyone to operate at the highest level, is just awesome. It feels like one big racing team.

“I’m very excited for the fans.

“We’re all racers, and we want to go win, but I think the big winners out of this are the fans of motorsports. It's a great privilege to be able to put on this show for them.”

Indianapolis 500
Indianapolis 500

Hendrick is flying most of his racing organization to Indianapolis for Friday’s “Carb Day” final practice session. It’s a reward for the hard work, determination, and the sacrifice that comes with their star driver stepping away from the team for a bit while trying to do double-duty.

Larson is attempting to become the first driver to complete the “Double” since Kurt Busch in 2014. That’s competing in the Indianapolis 500 then flying to Concord, North Carolina for the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR Cup Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on the same day.

“This is a big day for everyone there,” Hendrick explained. “For the team to go up and watch that and be a part of just standing there, involved in that, they deserve that. They're all excited. They've worked hard. They want to see Kyle do well. They feel like we're representing NASCAR when we go to Indy, and they want us to do good.

“They work so hard to get the car ready with Kevin Harvick and then switch it over for Kyle and then go run the All-Star Race. We saw the fans go nuts when the helicopter came in, and I was watching my watch.

“I think it's going to be a great day for our organization to be able to be there and experience Indy. It's well-deserved.”

Larson completed both days of qualifications at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this past weekend before flying to North Wilkesboro Speedway in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina for Sunday night’s NASCAR All-Star Race.

He made it with plenty of time to spare, but his NASCAR team owner admitted he was nervous, especially when the IndyCar team changed Chevrolet engines last Thursday.

“Well, just from my side, I was awful nervous Thursday when they had to do the engine change that morning and weren't able to get back out and get enough laps,”

Hendrick recalled. “I wanted to see Kyle get more laps. He wanted more laps. Instead of getting a lot of running, we just had to get ready to start getting up to speed to qualify.

“But he adapted so fast, and then the input from Tony Kanaan and everybody there working with him to be able to make the adjustments in the car that he did and feel the car with no more experience than he had, I was amazed.

"Tremendous pressure.

“I texted Gavin and I said, man, are we going to be, okay? I wanted to make the race. That was the first thing I thought about. I've got to make the race first. And he said, not to worry, we're going to be good. And they were.

“It was a little nerve-racking on Thursday.”

While Hendrick admits to nerves, the coolest man at the Speedway is his driver, Larson.

Always cool, calm and in control, Larson may be the least pretentious racing star in the world.

“He's always felt like super confident,” Hendrick said. “If he's nervous, he doesn't show it too much. He just believes in his ability.

Syndication: The Indianapolis Star
Syndication: The Indianapolis Star

“Once he gets in the car and gets comfortable, he wants to race. When I was watching practice, and I don't remember who it was going -- he got a run going into 1, and it looked like he was going to the outside, and I thought, oh, man, don't try that. But that's the racer in him.

“He's calm, cool, focused. He doesn't let the outside noise get to him. Even though he said he'd never signed as many autographs as he did up at Indy, you could see the crowd the way they reacted when he was on the track and out of the car.

“But he doesn't get involved in that. He's just a die-hard racer. He races in this race just like he would when he goes -- flies somewhere and gets in a sprint car or a midget. He just wants to get in the car and race.

“I think all the racing he's done has kind of built his confidence so much that he believes in himself, and he believes in the team and what the team tells him the car will do, and then he figures it out on his own, and he's off to the races.”

On Sunday, Hendrick will be on the starting grid next to his car about to start the Indianapolis 500.

The man has achieved more success than any team owner in NASCAR history, but this will be different.

This will be the Indianapolis 500.

NASCAR drivers Geoff Bodine and Richard Petty
NASCAR drivers Geoff Bodine and Richard Petty

“I think it's going to feel like the first time I went to Daytona, when I walked in and I looked at Junior Johnson and Richard Petty and all those guys, I thought, ‘Man, I shouldn't be here,’” Hendrick recalled. “When I walk in Sunday morning and we look at all those cars and the crowd and the people and the legends of IndyCar racing, Roger Penske and Michael Andretti and all the folks that are going to be lined up, I think I'll be a little bit intimidated.

“But knowing who's driving the car and Arrow McLaren behind it, I hope we can finish, and I hope the race finishes. I think we'll have a good day.

“Super excited. The Le Mans experience was unreal. This is going to be unreal. I'm getting to do a few bucket list things here in my old age.”

To see his Indy 500 co-entrant experience the thrill of this first attempt at the world’s biggest race is a moment where Brown is living vicariously.

“I'm very excited,” Brown said. “I think it's a privilege to work for McLaren and to go racing with Mr. H, Kyle and the Indy 500. It's a dream come true, so it's definitely going to be a pinch-me moment.

“I'm looking forward to it.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500