until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


'It kills me' - dismayed Larson must return to Indy 500

by Jack Benyon
6 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

The Race asked McLaren’s team boss Gavin Ward: "What can you say about the chances of Kyle Larson returning to the Indy 500 next year?"

“We’d love to have it, so I think there’s a good chance,” Ward replied - and Larson himself added “I would definitely love to be back next year” in his post-race TV interview.

But it’s not quite so simple.

Will NASCAR be as amenable next time to Larson missing part of its Charlotte race if there’s bad weather?

This effort took a lot from Hendrick and Chevrolet, so can they - or do they want to - match that level of effort and intensity again?

Can everyone involved cope with the media interest and all of the effort that goes merely into satisfying the out-of-the-car obligations of the Indy 500?

And, given the final result was pretty much in the worst-case scenario realm - with Larson writing that "seeing it come to reality is a horrible feeling" after finishing 18th - will all the parties involved be able to put that aside and give it another ago?

Ball in Hendrick's court

Roger Penske and Rick Hendrick, IndyCar

There’s been few smiles as bright as legendary NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick’s this month.

Hendrick (pictured above with Roger Penske) might be most famous for his NASCAR team and at one stage his outfit didn’t let its drivers race in other series to protect them - understandably so, when you think about the damage Chase Elliott's snowboarding accident did to the team's season last year.

But in allowing his drivers like Larson to race on dirt, and even Hendrick’s commitment to run the Garage 56 programme with a modified NASCAR at the Le Mans 24 Hours, Rick Hendrick keeps showing his colours as a true racer - and for him, doing the Indy 500 with McLaren has been one of the greatest honours of his career.

He had to make the call on whether to risk Larson’s NASCAR Cup playoff hopes at the end of the year - you have to do every race in the championship to be eligible for the championship-deciding playoffs unless you get a waiver from NASCAR.

And when weather forced the choice between sticking with the Indy 500 or having Larson start in Charlotte, Hendrick chose the former. It didn't work out how he will have dreamed - but the decision itself lets you know how much he wanted this. Knowing that, it’s hard to think that he won't want to try again.

Hendrick can't let this eat away at Larson

Kyle Larson, NASCAR

Larson left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway having made some simple and common errors that would easily be forgiven by other teams, but the problem here is that Larson didn’t want to forgive himself. As his emotional post-race social media post showed, he felt responsible.

"It just kills me to have it all end the way it did," he wrote. "I feel like I let so many people down."

The last thing Hendrick will want is this race eating away at Larson, to the point where it’s a constant source of regret. The best thing for Larson would be to get back on the horse, learn from those simple errors and come back as a contender for victory next year. He certainly would be one if McLaren delivers a similarly-competitive car.

Larson is a pro at jumping in and out of other cars and having a short memory. But even that would be tested given the scale and importance of the Indy 500.

What could make Hendrick think twice?

Roger Penske, Kyle Larson and Rick Hendrick, IndyCar

The NASCAR element of the equation is key. As long as it gives its blessing and sees the bigger picture of how much attention this brings to its Cup series as well as the Indy 500, things are easy. But the minute NASCAR decides to push back against this, that's when it would become really tough.

NASCAR is where Hendrick and Larson’s money is made. He was lucky he has a race win that, if a waiver is granted, should ensure his place in the playoffs later this year - but there are other years where he might go into the Indy 500 without a win and then the decision to forego a Charlotte race he had won before to stay at Indy would be much tougher.

Luckily, Larson is very good at winning races before May.

The weather is, of course, the other issue, even if rain delays at the Indy 500 are rare. But because attempts like Larson doing 'the double' require so much effort the planning is very difficult and the schedule is very compact. An organisation of the quality and size of Hendrick can’t enjoy that level of uncertainty.

What happened in his race?

Indy 500

Larson started fifth but fell back at the first restart after he pressed the paddle to change gears twice by accident and he was swamped.

But he didn’t get on the radio complaining - he went quiet and set about fighting his way forwards. He nailed every other restart, even making a wild pass around the outside of Turn 1 on the next restart following the one where he'd made the shifting error.

He'd worked his way up to fourth among those on his strategy by the time he locked up entering pitlane and got a speeding penalty that put him to the back, and then McLaren took a huge swing trying to go to the end without another pitstop, which required a caution that never came.

In the last stint he was stuck in 18th. It’s tricky to pass that deep in the pack and everyone around him had fresh tyres and no need to save fuel, so it was status quo.

I wish the TV coverage had shown more of Larson’s race because he made so many overtakes, experimented with lines and getting a run on his rivals, and learned from the errors he made. I’m certain that if he had the car next year, or even if there was another 200 laps at the end of Sunday’s race, he’d be in victory contention.

Kyle Larson, McLaren, Indy 500

Yes, the errors are tough to take, but his performance proved why he is regularly labelled one of the best drivers in the world. And exactly why he was given the honour of Rookie of the Year.

“Feel like I learned a lot throughout the race,” Larson told NBC.

“I made a couple of mistakes early there with the restart - and then feel like I did a really good job on the restarts, was able to learn a lot, definitely feel good about knowing what I’d need different with the balance to help runs, and then obviously I smoked a left-front in the green flag stop and killed our opportunity.

“So, proud to finish, but pretty upset at myself. If I could have just executed a better race, you never know what could happen. Bummed at myself.”

What happened in NASCAR

Justin Allgaier, NASCAR

Justin Allgaier - a highly-accomplished veteran of NASCAR's second-tier Xfinity series - started Larson’s car in Charlotte because Larson was late arriving due to the Indy 500 weather delay.

Larson got to the track just after halfway, but a hold for lighting meant NASCAR called the race early so Larson went all the way from Indy to Charlotte to not get in his #5 stock car.

Maybe that's another vote in favour of Larson doing this again next year. He and his Hendrick team set out to do ‘The Double’, but they didn’t get to.

Missing the NASCAR race is critical element of The Double, so surely they have to come back and finish what they started in 2025.

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