Kyle Larson shows blistering speed during Indy 500 Fast Friday practice

INDIANAPOLIS — Naturally for Kyle Larson, familiarity mattered little in producing supersonic speed on Fast Friday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Again showcasing the adaptability that has branded him a world-class talent, the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion mastered complicated cockpit adjustments and 100 extra horsepower on the fly at speeds of more than 230 mph.

Four hours into the final Indianapolis 500 practice before qualifying, Larson turned the fastest lap (234.271 mph) of 34 drivers with a 232.902-mph lap around the 2.5-mile oval at exactly 4 p.m. ET.

Even more importantly at a track where a four-lap average determines pole speed, the Hendrick Motorsports star was solidly in the top 10 rankings for a 10-mile qualifying run. The 12 fastest drivers on Saturday will advance to two rounds of pole qualifying on Sunday.

“It definitely feels faster, but it’s not like scary fast, thankfully,” said Larson, who was bumped by Colton Herta to second fastest by the end of the session. “So that was good. I just think our balance was pretty comfortable so I was happy about that. … It‘s hard to say kind of still where you’re at yet because I feel like every run, there’s some bit of tow (draft), but I think the good thing is that the balance seems comfortable, so I don’t feel like I’ve got a bunch of understeer or tight, for the stock car racers listening, but I don’t feel super loose either, so it’s pretty balanced, which is nice.

Larson made four solid attempts Friday at simulating qualifying, defusing concerns after three frustrating days of practice time in his attempt to become the fifth driver to run the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day.

“Kyle’s doing a great job,” said Brian Campe, the technical director for Hendrick who is helping spearhead the team‘s joint effort with Arrow McLaren to field the No. 17 Dallara-Chevrolet. “We’re learning as a team every run.

kyle larson shows blistering speed during indy 500 fast friday practice

Indianapolis, IN - during the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (Photo by Joe Skibinski | IMS Photo)

“We’ll just really work on the details the rest of the day. We’ve got the bulk, we’ve got some speed. We’re kind of right in the game there with our teammates Rossi and O‘Ward. So that’s a big confidence booster for Kyle. So now we can focus on the details. It’s just getting laps and going through the process. I think the more Kyle can learn, we’ll be faster. If you can make Kyle Larson better, you’ll always be faster.”

A winner in everything from sprint cars to stock cars to dirt late models, Larson is used to hopping into unfamiliar vehicles and ripping off eye-popping laps — but the degree of difficulty is higher this weekend at the Brickyard.

Starting in Friday‘s six-hour session and through the end of Sunday afternoon qualifying, the Chevy and Honda engines are outfitted with a turbo boost that puts cars on the cusp of challenging the track qualifying record of 236.986 mph set by two-time Indy 500 winner Arie Luyendyk in 1996.

While traveling more than he ever has in nearly three decades of racing cars, Larson is also being asked to manage his car with the precision of a fighter pilot. The Indy 500 pole often comes down to adjustments made at speed. In-car cameras capture drivers furiously mashing buttons and turning knobs on their wheels to control weight distribution and engine mapping that can make the difference in gaining critical tenths of a second.

Larson spent some of Thursday getting acclimated to the machinations of qualifying, but he still felt a little behind the 8-ball. After losing nearly 90 minutes to an engine change, Larson completed only 29 laps (the third-fewest) in a session interrupted by rain (which already had wiped out 11 of a possible 14 hours Tuesday and Wednesday).

“Obviously it’s not ideal for them, considering he’s new to IndyCar,” Arrow McLaren teammate Pato O‘Ward said after turning the fastest practice lap (228.861 mph) Thursday. “He’s new to basically everything that has to do with the Indy 500 and with the car and everything. But Kyle looks comfortable. I think he’s fine.”

Barring a major mechanical problem or human error, Larson should have no trouble qualifying for his Indy 500 debut on May 26, and he might even have a shot at starting in the top four rows (all four Arrow McLaren entries made the top 12 in qualifying).

“I think it’d be pretty neat to make the Fast 12 and then the Fast Six,” he said. “But being a rookie and all that, I don’t know if that’s to be expected, but it would be pretty cool to line up in the front couple rows of the race. I just want to get a good, smooth run in and make the show first. Being the top rookie I guess would be cool in qualifying as well.”

But the work starts all over again Monday when the turbo boost is removed, and the handling is impacted for the race. Larson will have only four more hours — two-hour sessions Monday and Friday — to get comfortable in traffic for 500 miles.

“The intensity level of those two sessions is a lot higher than probably it is during this week, so it‘s a bit more race-like,” Team Penske‘s Scott McLaughlin said. “I think Kyle‘s still got time to get acclimated. He‘s a smart dude. He’s the type of guy that once he gets into the race, I’m sure if he’s fast enough, he‘ll just figure it out and just start picking people off. Guys like that, they‘re generational talents, so I think he’ll be just fine.”

kyle larson shows blistering speed during indy 500 fast friday practice

Kyle Larson drives at Indy

Defending Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden also has confidence in Larson being a fast learner.

“My intuition tells me that he’s in a great spot,” Newgarden said. “He’s in a good team. He’s got good teammates. He’s got great historical data. They had strong cars last year. He’s had enormous practice as far as what you need to do as a race car driver to implement yourself into a system.

“The other thing, too, is the typical transfer happens better from NASCAR to (IndyCar) because you do get so much mileage. You wouldn’t get this in the NASCAR world, so even the limited (practice) is more than what he’s used to, so I think he’s going to be just fine.”

Campe said Larson benefited from making 54 laps Wednesday.

“In probably the worst traffic we would see during the race. So he got a taste of that. And then Monday and Friday, we‘ll have a better idea where we’ll start. That’ll really dictate where we put him in traffic so they can really dial in the balance of the car.”

And in between all of that, Larson will be dialing in his No. 5 Chevrolet at North Wilkesboro Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway the next two weeks.

If he qualifies between 13th and 30th (locking into the Indy 500 field but not eligible for the pole), Larson will fly Saturday night to North Carolina and spend Sunday at North Wilkesboro.

If he makes the Fast 12 (or in the very unlikely scenario he‘s in the bottom four battling for the final three spots on the 33-car grid at Indy), Larson will spend Sunday morning and afternoon in Indy. Qualifying is scheduled to end by 5:55 p.m. ET, and the Hendrick plane has a wheels-up time of no later than 6:20 p.m. so Larson can take the green flag as the defending winner of the All-Star Race.

“I think I talked to everyone at Hendrick Motorsports before we left (for Indianapolis), wishing us good luck,” Campe said. “And I know they’re tuned in back at the shop. So I know they’re working hard for Wilkesboro and the 600, which is our next big race.

“So a big thank you to Rick (Hendrick) and Jeff (Gordon) and Chad (Knaus) and all the people back at Hendrick to let Kyle and I do this and take our focus off of our day jobs to go do this little thing, the Indy 500. We’re super proud to represent everyone at Hendrick Motorsports, and it’s real special. I‘m blessed to be able to do it.”

Nate Ryan has written about NASCAR since 1996 while working at the San Bernardino Sun, Richmond Times-Dispatch, USA TODAY and for the past 10 years at NBC Sports Digital. He is the host of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast and also has covered various other motorsports, including the IndyCar and IMSA series.

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