Larson sees Indy-NASCAR doubly busy as May begins in Kansas

DAVE SKRETTA Associated Press

KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Kyle Larson started what will be a busy month of May on a small dirt road nestled in a bend of the Missouri River, where he started outside the top 10 in his sprint car on Friday evening and managed to climb to third place at the finish.

By the end of the month, Larson hopes to have made some history.

The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion is attempting to join Tony Stewart as the only drivers to ever complete “the double,” completing each lap of the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day. Several people have attempted it over the years, most recently Kurt Busch in 2014, but the task proves to be one of the most grueling in all of motorsports.

“I mean, I’m definitely excited,” Larson said Saturday, shortly before stepping into his No. 5 for Hendrick Motorsports and qualifying for the Cup Series race at Kansas Speedway. “At the same time, I’m not overly concerned. I think I’ve known it’s coming for a few years now, and you just have to be ready to get out there and get started.”

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Larson also said he isn’t thinking about Memorial Day weekend yet.

There’s a lot more racing to be done first.

He raced his sprint car again on Saturday night at nearby Lakeside Speedway, then on Sunday he will try to improve on his finish from a year ago in Kansas, where Denny Hamlin bumped him out of the way on the final lap to take the win.

Larson also has NASCAR’s throwback weekend at Darlington on the horizon, and another sprint car race at Kokomo Speedway in Indiana on May 13, the night before he boards his Arrow McLaren ride to practice for the Indy 500.

“It’s starting to sink in what’s ahead,” Larson admitted. “You have to do rookie orientation for the first time and you get there, and that was the first moment of, ‘Holy (expletive), I’m actually in an IndyCar right now.’ But I think since then I’m more ready to finally get started.”

Larson already has a Cup Series victory in Las Vegas in March, and he has five top-five finishes in the series, including a second-place finish at Dover last weekend. He has led at least one lap in eight races and his 570 laps are 35 more than any other driver.

That consistency has helped Hendrick Motorsports team with Joe Gibbs Racing to dominate the Cup Series this season. Hendrick has five wins and Hamlin gave Gibbs his fourth win last week at Dover, and it’s hard to believe the two power teams won’t be back in front on Sunday; they are tied for the most wins on the track at eight apiece.

In any case, Hamlin is looking forward to a new match.

Especially if it goes like the spring race a year ago in Kansas.

“It was a fierce battle,” he remembers. “We were the top two guys. He got ahead there and I remember chasing him there towards the end when he got loose. But it’s like that race to race. I can’t go back anymore. We have a different car, new tire in this race. There’s not much I can put together other than how can I attack this track to gain speed?”

Charter chatter

Hamlin, who co-owns 23XI Racing with Michael Jordan, lamented the state of charter negotiations on Saturday. Charters offer their owners guaranteed starting spots and other financial benefits, but expire after 2024. Owners want them to become permanent so they can more easily attract long-term sponsors and investors. They also want more revenue, a bigger voice in NASCAR decisions and a share in new business opportunities, such as gambling revenue.

“Why is this so important?” Hamlin asked. “Eleven teams have gone bankrupt since 2016. That is not good. And certainly if we continue the trend of a few stakeholders doing very well and others not, that will continue.”

Back in the saddle

Jimmie Johnson will drive the No. 84 car for Legacy Motor Club for the second week in a row as part of its abbreviated Cup Series schedule. The three-time Kansas winner finished 28th at the Daytona 500, 29th at Texas and 28th last week at Dover.

“This year has been more challenging for us in many more ways than we expected,” Johnson admitted, “but I do think we are getting closer to a consistent pace that we hope to achieve week in and week out.”

Ford’s focus

The season has been dominated by Chevrolet and Toyota so far, leaving Ford still looking for its first Cup Series win. But the cars were fast at Talladega, and Noah Gragson and Ryan Blaney finished sixth and seventh at Dover last week.

“Right now, I think our schedule is — if we were an 18th-place team last year, I think we’re closer to a 10th-place team,” said Gragson’s crew chief, Drew Blickensderfer. “And teams in 10th place can win races.”

Odds and ends

Hamlin is the 9-2 favorite, according to BetMGM Sportsbook. Larson and William Byron are next at 5-1. …Ricky Stenhouse Jr. signed a multi-year extension this week to continue driving the No. 47 for JTG Daugherty Racing. … Corey Heim will once again pilot the No. 43 in place of Erik Jones, who was cleared to return by NASCAR but will sit out another week as he recovers from a crash at Talladega. Jones suffered a compression fracture in his back during the wreck.