NASCAR star Kyle Larson rockets toward the top of Indianapolis 500 qualifying on his second attempt

Kyle Larson prepares to drive during qualifications for the Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Saturday, May 18, 2024, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

By DAVE SKRETTA AP Sports Writer

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Kyle Larson kept calm when something seemed amiss in his first qualifying attempt for the Indianapolis 500.

So did everyone else at Arrow McLaren.

They knew they had plenty of speed in his car, so they pushed the No. 17 back to Gasoline Alley, gave a thorough exam to the Chevrolet engine that had Larson on the verge of making the field, and headed right back to the track to give it another try.

This time, Larson was able to stand on the gas all the way through his four-lap run, posting a 232.563 mph average to put the NASCAR star in position to run for the pole. He was sixth-quickest on the first day of qualifying at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, leaving him one of 12 that will shoot for the first spot on the starting grid Sunday.

“I’ll definitely take that,” said Larson, who also will try to become the first driver since Tony Stewart in 2001 to complete the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte on the same day May 26. “Proud of the team for not all of us freaking out.”

There was reason for concern, though, during what started off as a tough day for Arrow McLaren.

Larson was the sixth of 34 cars onto the track, a favorable draw given that quicker speeds tend to happen earlier in the day, when the weather is cooler. And he was off to a good start when, late in the attempt, Larson said his engine seemed to miss; it turned out to be a sort of non-fatal hiccup that cost several other drivers promising runs throughout the day.

Larson’s team wanted him to finish and post a time, but he played it safe and came down pit road.

“We were happy with the speed we had in the 17 before the event happened there,” said Arrow McLaren team principal Gavin Ward, who is working with Hendrick Motorsports to qualify Larson for “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

Larson could not eclipse 233 mph on any of his four laps when he returned to the track, leaving him off the pace set by Team Penske, which locked down the top three spots with defending race winner Josef Newgarden, Scott McLaughlin and Will Power.

Still, the run was good enough for Larson to join Arrow McLaren teammate Alexander Rossi in the top six.

“Honestly, I feel like the nerves were a lot less going the second time, even not completing that first run,” Larson said. “I’ve never gotten to qualify like that where you get multiple shots at it.”

Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman Jeff Gordon, who grew up in nearby Pittsboro and dreamed of running the Indy 500, took a picture of Larson with his cellphone as he finished his run. Gordon then high-fived Jeff Andrews, president and general manager of Hendrick Motorsports, who also showed up to support their driver.

“Now we can breathe,” Gordon said. “Now we can ramp up for tomorrow.”

It could be a big Sunday.

After going for the pole in Indianapolis, Larson is scheduled to fly to North Wilkesboro for the NASCAR All-Star Race in what amounts to a dry run for Memorial Day weekend. But with rain in the forecast in North Carolina, Larson hoped that race would get pushed to Monday night, giving him a bigger travel cushion.

“That would be nice,” Larson said, brightening at the possibility. “I hope it rains tomorrow!”

Larson wasn’t the only Arrow McLaren driver to have problems on the first day of Indy 500 qualifying.

Earlier, Callum Ilott posted a four-lap average of 231.995 mph that put him in the top 10, but the time was thrown out when a technical inspection discovered a problem with the left rear wheel offset on his career. Ilott was slightly slower when he made a second attempt, then he went 232.230 later in the day, putting himself solidly in the field.

Pato O’Ward pulled out of the lineup for his initial run when the team decided to make some changes to his setup, then he had a similar problem to Larson’s first try when he got on the track. O’Ward eventually made the fast 12 at 232.434 mph.

“It’s settling just to know that we’ll be fine to get in the show,” O’Ward said. “This place, you just can’t take it for granted. You’re good one day, you come back the next and everything seems upside down. We just have to keep pushing.”


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