Indy 500: The Kyle Larson situation is anything but personal

A NASCAR driver with zero IndyCar experience coming in and dominating the Indy 500 might not sit well with certain fans. But Kyle Larson isn't your typical NASCAR driver.
Kyle Larson, Arrow McLaren-Hendrick Motorsports, Indy 500, IndyCar
Kyle Larson, Arrow McLaren-Hendrick Motorsports, Indy 500, IndyCar / Kristin Enzor/For IndyStar / USA TODAY

2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Larson running the Indy 500 is a topic that has been discussed for years, even going back to before its formal confirmation two Januarys ago.

And it has understandably been the story of the month of May and one of the biggest stories, if not the biggest story, of the 2024 IndyCar season thus far.

Larson has joined Arrow McLaren through a partnership with his Cup Series team, Hendrick Motorsports, to run the No. 17 McLaren-Hendrick Chevrolet at Indianapolis Motor Speedway as he makes his series debut in the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing".

Larson plans to attempt the Memorial Day Double, competing in both the Indy 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on the same day.

The feat has only been attempted by four drivers, and it hasn't been tried since 2004 Cup Series champion Kurt Busch did it in 2014. Only Tony Stewart (2001) successfully managed to complete all 1,100 miles. Larson's effort has been dubbed the "Hendrick 1,100".

Those who follow NASCAR know that Larson has one of the most passionate fanbases in racing. His 2021 championship run saw him win 10 races, something that hadn't been achieved since 2007, and he is a favorite to win seemingly week in and week out. He is up to 25 wins, 19 since joining Rick Hendrick's team three years ago.

Larson has long been touted for his ability to drive anything with four wheels, and he has never made it a secret that, despite his role as a full-time Cup Series driver, his true passion is dirt track racing. He is a true racer, and it was only a matter of time before he found his way to Indianapolis for the Indy 500. The late Robin Miller would be proud.

Unfortunately for some fans, both of Larson and of other IndyCar drivers, the NASCAR driver attempting to win the biggest race on the IndyCar schedule has become personal, and the passion has turned to vitriol.

Even going back to last month's open test at Indianapolis, there had been an element of tension brewing between Larson fans and fans of some of IndyCar's top drivers on social media, tension that simply doesn't need to exist.

After day one of the rain-shortened (and ultimately single-day) open test last month, Arrow McLaren teammate Pato O'Ward was asked about Larson's pace, responding that it was a "nice tow lap!" after Larson placed second on the speed chart behind reigning race winner Josef Newgarden.

O'Ward was attacked in the comments section by an angry mob of Larson fans, some of whom likely didn't know what a tow lap was (or even who O'Ward, IndyCar's most popular driver, is) simply for saying that it was a "nice tow lap".

It was indeed a nice tow lap. Yet because of how he said it, that comment from a former Indy 500 runner-up and last year's laps led leader was criticized. He was referred to as "salty", called a sore loser, and told to "get faster", almost as if he is supposed to bow down to his teammate just because he's Kyle Larson.

Just because he wasn't totally singing his teammate's praises after an abbreviated running, his comment was viewed as disrespectful, when it was anything but.

What do you expect him to say?

Unlike a significant portion of NASCAR social media, O'Ward wasn't ready to crown his teammate this year's Indy 500 champion for finishing second in an unofficial practice session during which speeds are nowhere near representative of anything seen during Indy 500 practice week, specifically Fast Friday, leading up to qualifying.

As some of the first-time Indy 500 fans found out last week, there are effectively two speed charts when it comes to the Indy 500: a no-tow chart and a tow chart. The no-tow chart is obviously more indicative of how a car should qualify, while the tow chart may give a better indication on race pace, specifically when race setups, not qualifying setups, are in use.

And while it may not look like a driver is getting a tow, if a car is even remotely close to them in front, it counts as a tow lap. Larson's top lap was indeed a tow lap, even if it didn't look like it to the naked eye.

That's not an insult. It's just literally how it's categorized.

It stands to reason that fans of Larson, whether they've watched an IndyCar race (or even heard of IndyCar) before now, want their driver to win. The same was true when Kurt Busch ran the Indy 500 in 2014, and the same was true when Formula 1's Fernando Alonso ran it, specifically in 2017. They'd root for him in anything.

It also stands to reason that fans of IndyCar drivers are going to cheer for -- and defend -- their favorite drivers too. The idea that that not rooting for Larson is somehow "disrespectful" to Larson is baffling. Nobody is obligated to root for the driver of the No. 17 Chevrolet just because he is the major storyline leading up to the race.

Kyle Larson not your typical NASCAR driver

While there may be a contingent of IndyCar fans who would take exception to a NASCAR driver with zero IndyCar experience coming in and immediately winning the biggest race in the world, I don't think that contingent of fans is nearly as large as some within Larson's fanbase like to think it is.

This isn't your typical NASCAR vs. IndyCar situation. And even if it is for some (i.e. Jeff Burton on a recent Peacock Indy 500 stream), that's nothing personal, and it's far from the disrespect that some want to believe it is.

Larson is an all-around racer who happens to compete full-time in NASCAR. The phrase "generational talent" might be the most overused phrase when it comes to sports media in this day and age, but he is clearly NASCAR's version of it at the moment, and a large part of that has to do with his achievements outside of NASCAR.

In his first ever qualifying attempt for the 200-lap race around the four-turn, 2.5-mile (4.023-kilometer) Speedway, Indiana oval, he managed to qualify on the middle of the second row in fifth place (full starting lineup here).

While the race is obviously a whole different animal, Larson's month of May has been impressive thus far, and despite having no IndyCar experience to his name, he has seemingly been right at home.

Like any other driver, Larson will have fans rooting for and against him. It's not personal. And with a racer of his caliber, it's certainly not just a situation of NASCAR vs. IndyCar.

It's time to simply appreciate his Indy 500 and Memorial Day Double efforts for what they are.

Next. IndyCar change made that should have been made weeks ago. IndyCar change made that should have been made weeks ago. dark

NBC is set to provide live coverage of the 108th running of the Indy 500 from Indianapolis Motor Speedway beginning at 11:00 a.m. ET on Sunday, May 26. Fox is set to provide live coverage of the Coca-Cola 600 from Charlotte Motor Speedway beginning at 6:00 p.m. ET. Start a free trial of FuboTV now if you have not already done so!