Larson’s Busy Weekend Still Smells The Roses

Kyle Larson - 2024-05-17T170522.468

The decibel level unmistakably rose as Kyle Larson’s name was announced and the popular driver descended the main-straight grandstands at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway Saturday morning. Thousands of fans at this Indianapolis 500 public drivers meeting stood on their feet and loudly cheered for NASCAR’s championship leader and coming Sunday. … an Indianapolis 500 rookie.

It was obvious that Larson was equally as enamored with the scene and notably appreciative of those special moments. The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion took the time to really admire the ring presented to all 33 of the 2024 Indy 500 drivers – that driver meeting following an hour-long autograph signing session for fans at the base of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s famous Pagoda Tower.

The line to get to Larson and his fellow second row starting drivers Alexander Rossi and Santino Ferrucci actually had to be cut-off hours earlier because it filled so quickly.

The people who waited for Larson’s autograph or a quick photo were decidedly blue and orange. Blue as in the color of his NASCAR Cup Series car and orange for the Arrow McLaren Racing team he will compete for at Indianapolis – the fans so enthusiastic and supportive of Larson’s bid to do the “The Double” – race Indy’s famed 500-miler Sunday afternoon followed by the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway Sunday night.

“I’m a huge fan, huge,” said Brandon Hinton, 46, of Speedway, Ind. who had been standing in line with his family for hours with a Larson shirt and a collectable diecast NASCAR Cup Series car for Larson to sign.

“When we found out he was going to do the [Indy] 500, I was stoked, so happy. The car’s been good. Can he win? Yeah. Definitely a top-five or top-10, but I think he can win it. We’ve been in the garage area all month and he signed thousands of autographs. He’s great.”

Because of his tight dual schedule this weekend – which included a practice and qualifying session Saturday afternoon in his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet at Charlotte Motor Speedway – Larson and his family were the first of the drivers to appear in the traditional 500 Festival Parade before rushing to the airport for the hour-and-a-half flight to Charlotte.

The parade through downtown Indianapolis was a mutually beneficial experience – for the race and for Larson, who received a passionately welcome reception.

It’s exactly the kind of positive response the 31-year old Larson has received all month – from fans, from competitors, from his NASCAR team, which attended Friday’s traditional final practice. And he has received so much support from many Indianapolis racing legends who all want to see the likeable, super-talent succeed in this weekend’s double quest.

Words of encouragement have come from past winners such as the legendary Parnelli Jones, Johnny Rutherford, Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan.

The great Mario Andretti, who won the 1969 Indianapolis 500 and is synonymous with the race, sent a video message to Larson via NASCAR on FOX.

“Back in the day, I drove just about everything motorsports had to offer,” said Andretti, who also won the 1967 Daytona 500 and claimed the 1978 Formula One championship.

“But driving an IndyCar in Indianapolis, that was something special – the sights, the sounds, the pure history, the pure speed. It is truly a spectacle. And if you win, it will change your life forever.”

Added Andretti, “It’s a lot of driving for one day, but I’ve seen what you can do and I know you will be just fine. Kyle, I wish you the best of luck in your quest for 1,100 miles.”

Judging by the adoration of racing greats, the support from the fans and the overall respect shown to the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion, Larson’s life is already forever changed. He has impressed – turning in fast laps all month in preparation for the Indy 500 and even qualifying fifth on the 33-car grid with a four-lap average of 232.846 mph in the No. 17 Chevrolet Dallara, fielded by Arrow McLaren and Hendrick Motorsports.

Larson’s NASCAR spotter Brent Wentz will be spotting for him at both races. And his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports crew even attended Friday’s final practice, “Carburetion Day,” his Cup crew chief Cliff Daniels saying of the experience, “It’s really special.”

“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,” he added. “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 a part of. We all knew his natural talent and ability is, of course, there.”

Hendrick Motorsports executive Jeff Gordon – who in 1994 became the first winner of NASCAR’s Indianapolis race, The Brickyard 400, has been a steady presence at The Speedway this month. His enthusiasm for Larson’s quest has been unmistakable and the pride equally as so.

“You know people used to ask me all the time, ‘can you even believe Kyle Larson?’ and I used to think the same way, but I don’t anymore,” Gordon said. “He just always steps up. It’s fun to watch and be a part of this whole experience, the crowd getting into it, this team and how they stepped up.”

Larson is now the fifth driver to attempt The Double joining the late John Andretti, NASCAR Hall of Famer Tony Stewart, Robby Gordon and former NASCAR champion Kurt Busch. Of those, only Stewart completed every lap of both races – doing so in 1999 and 2001 and earning the best single-day, double-effort of sixth place at Indianapolis and third at Charlotte in 2001.

Larson seems to have taken all the attention, all the extra work, all the travel in stride. Of course, he is one of the busiest racers even without the Indianapolis entry – competing on short tracks around the world in addition to his NASCAR duties, where he already has wins at Las Vegas and Kansas this season and leads the NASCAR Cup Series championship standings by 30 points over Joe Gibbs Racing driver Martin Truex Jr.

“I’ve been pretty relaxed from my side,” Larson acknowledged with a smile Thursday. “I’ve done a ton of interviews and all that and signed bunches of autographs and everything, but nothing has been like ‘surprising’ or I’ve not felt like overwhelmed really at any point.

“It’s all been smooth and I think there’s just been a lot of planning going on behind the scenes between Arrow McLaren and Hendrick Motorsports for months. That’s helped it be really smooth.”

Larson’s Sunday travel schedule includes a 4:15 p.m. ET tight deadline for him to leave the Indianapolis track. He will take a helicopter from the speedway to the airport for the flight to Charlotte with a nurse on-board to administer IV fluids as needed. Once in North Carolina, Larson will take a helicopter from the airport to the Charlotte Motor Speedway infield where his car and team will be waiting for the next green flag.

Unfortunately, the biggest potential snag in all this careful timing is the weather. Forecasts vary somewhat for the Indianapolis outlook, but there is a good chance of rain on Sunday. Should the Indy 500 be postponed to Monday, Larson would fly back to race. His Arrow McLaren team had not announced “back-up plans” as of Saturday morning should Larson have to leave for Charlotte Sunday before any delayed-start Indy 500 concludes.

Controlling what he can control, Larson has been notably calm and composed all month. He was the only driver during the Drivers Meeting Saturday to really study the Indianapolis 500 ring he received, taking it out of the box and examining it carefully. He was smiling throughout, taking the time to take it all in.

“I’ve had so much advice throughout the last year, I feel like,” Larson said. “I’ve had lots of people just telling me to enjoy the experience, enjoy the event and I’ve really tried. I feel like I’ve done a good job of that. I’ve tried to take as much time as I can for the fans and media and all that.

“I don’t know how often I’m going to run this race,” he added. “I don’t know if this is the only year I’m running it. I’m just trying to enjoy it and I have. It’s been one of the coolest experiences for sure, to this point, and we haven’t even run the race yet.”

TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!

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