INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Kyle Larson looked like a natural turning his first laps in an IndyCar.
Then he hopped on a plane and continued his quest for a second NASCAR championship.
The 31-year-old Californian took a brief respite from his playoff chase Thursday with a neatly timed stopover in Indianapolis so he could pass his Indianapolis 500 rookie test, posting a fast lap of 217.898 mph on a 72-lap practice before jetting off to Las Vegas.
It gave Larson a brief glimpse into what it will feel like to run “the double.”
“So I did look at a wall one time thinking, ‘Man, that would hurt if I hit it,’ so things are obviously happening quickly,” he said afterward. “I think the sensation is probably more when you get around other cars and probably when you’re in qualifying trim. I think that’s when it’s going to be crazy.”
Larson’s attempt at completing 1,100 miles of racing on May 26 may seem even crazier. But for the fearless 2021 Cup champ, it is just another goal for one of the busiest top-tier drivers in motorsports.
In Indy, Larson has usually fared well. He started his career at the Brickyard 400 with three straight top-10s on the historic 2.5-mile oval, then added two more top-10s in the last three years on the track’s newer road course. In 2021, he even won on the dirt track, located in the third turn.
But Thursday marked the first time he had taken an IndyCar around the oval, and it was different.
“Like I said in (a Cup car) you’d be really tight in (turn) one, like you’re off the gas. You’d be tight in (turn) two and then you would have better balance in (turns) three and four,” Larson said. “ This has way more downforce and speed than a Cup car, but the balance of all four corners felt way more similar than a stock car. So that’s nice, I guess.”
Still, there were some rookie moments.
At one point, Larson accidentally hit a button on the steering wheel that he said prevented the car from moving. The plan is to move it to avoid a repeat before the race or, even worse, on race day.
And Arrow McLaren driving coach Tony Kanaan, the 2013 Indy champ, tried to keep things light when Larson’s team started making too much of the data. He told Larson to savor the moment.
“Look, you have a wheel with 25 buttons, then you have the weight jacker, then the front bar, then you have telemetry you can analyze, and you have an engineer trying to give you all that information — it’s way too much,” Kanaan said. “Why are we going to feed him all that information right now? We’re not coming back here till April. We’re not going to remember that.”
Practice conditions in the spring also are likely to be completely different from Thursday’s ideal weather — warm, sunny and calm with no traffic or tow speeds.
In fact, the toughest part for Larson was slowing enough to pass each of three phases. Rookies must turn 10 laps between 205 and 210 mph, 15 laps between 210 and 215 and 15 more faster than 215.
“When you’re running more throttle, it’s easier to kind of hit your target,” Larson said. “So the slower the speed, it was just kind of hard for me to figure out my timing. Like I would roll out and want to run wide open through one and two.”
It sure didn’t take him long to get the hang of it as his NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick and Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman Jeff Gordon watched from the pit box.
Gordon won four Cup championships and a record five Brickyard 400s at the track located just a few miles from his high school. But the one dream he didn’t achieve in racing was running in the 500, something he is now content to do through Larson’s presence.
“Somewhere deep inside I wish that I had that opportunity. But I’m absolutely having a blast,” Gordon said. “Watching him in his craft and his element, I can tell you is a little bit nerve-wracking. Like my palms were sweaty before he got out.”
For Hendrick, who has won just about everything meaningful in NASCAR, there’s one prized possession missing from his trophy case. And if the next seven months go as well as Thursday, perhaps Larson will fill that void.
“That would go right in the middle. That would be something pretty special,” Hendrick said when asked about adding a baby Borg-Warner Trophy to his collection. “I don’t even let myself go there. First, we have to make the race. Just to say you could win this race, could win it, would win it, you might be able to build off of that, just that trophy and the car, because it would be that special.”
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