Inside Kyle Larson's quest for the Indy 500-Coke 600 Double

SPEEDWAY, Ind., and CONCORD, N.C. -- Kyle Larson fears no race car, racetrack or racing rival.

He is widely considered to be the most versatile racer of his generation, a modern day A.J. Foyt or Mario Andretti. That's why the idea of taking on arguably the most daunting challenge that American motorsports has to offer, attempting to complete the planet's biggest race (the Indianapolis 500) and NASCAR's most grueling race (the Coca-Cola 600) on the same day was so attractive. Because Kyle Larson fears nothing and loses to few.

On Sunday, though, Mother Nature kicked Kyle Larson's ass.

His reaction? To figure out a way to do it all over again.

"Don't try to question it, because, no offense, you don't really understand it," Andretti himself said on Sunday, admittedly jealous of the 31-year-old's carefully planned and ultimately doomed Double attempt. "Anyone [in Indianapolis] or in Charlotte or over in Monaco this morning, anyone with a racing helmet in their hand today, they get it. It makes sense to them. To us. Racers. It's why we root for Kyle, because we want to do it as well."

Even if it fails?

"If it fails, that's just lessons learned for the next time. And the next. Until you get those trophies," expounded the man with so many trophies, from IndyCar, Formula One and NASCAR, too.

On Sunday, Larson completed only 200 laps and 500 miles of what was supposed to be a 600-lap/1,100-mile day. He also sprinted through 619 miles of travel, carried over that distance by way of two golf carts, two Chevy Suburbans, two helicopters and a Dassault Falcon 2000LXS. To make all of that happen took more than a year of planning by dozens of people working for two legendary race teams, NASCAR's Hendrick Motorsports and Arrow McLaren of IndyCar. The meetings were endless. The logistics were exhausting. It was all going to work. Until it didn't.

"There were so many scenarios that could have played out so many different ways," Larson said Sunday just before midnight, in the rain-soaked Charlotte Motor Speedway garage, the Coca-Cola 600 having just been called by NASCAR, with Christopher Bell declared the winner with 151 of 400 laps remaining. "But the worst-case scenario happened, and that's a bummer."

Larson's day began 19 hours earlier, awakened in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway infield as the old racetrack was rattled to life by the traditional 6 a.m. cannon shot that signals the opening of the gates. He immediately peeked out of his motorhome and into the sky. The silhouette of the nearby tree line was lined in soft pink and orange, glowing on the eastern horizon over the backstretch. Dawn was breaking with nary a cloud to be seen in any direction. The man who hoped to become only the fifth racer to complete the so-called Double, only the second to successfully run the entire 1,110 miles on the same day and perhaps the first to win one or even both, had only one thought.

"I wished we could have started the race right then."

Alas, the green flag for the 108th Indianapolis 500 was scheduled for 12:45 p.m. ET, almost the exact moment of arrival for a band of vicious thunderstorms that bulldozed the nation all weekend. It rolled through Speedway, Indiana, at precisely the worst time. Unless you like dominoes.

"I don't know if I can ever remember a time when a room full of racers were rooting for rain before a race started, but we certainly were," confessed Jeff Gordon, the four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion-turned-Hendrick Motorsports chairman.

Added his boss, team owner Rick Hendrick, who also had his auto sales business on both cars as primary sponsor: "If I don't have to look at another weather radar map again for a while, that will be fine with me."

As soon as the extended Indy forecasts began showing the possibility of showers within the green flag window, Gordon, Hendrick, Hendrick Motorsports general manager Jeff Andrews, Arrow McLaren CEO Zak Brown and Larson started a series of daily meetings to discuss weather scenarios. By Sunday, those meetings were happening multiple times per hour. As late as 2 p.m., while Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials were scrambling 250,000 fans in and out of the grandstands due to lightning concerns and also working to dry the racing surface to avoid just the fourth outright race postponement in 108 editions of the Indy 500, Team Larson was in their Gasoline Alley garage stall, hoping for the complete opposite.

The long, thin line of storms was moving quickly and on a northern route. They wanted it to slow down and take more of a turn to the east. Once they knew the rain was inevitable, then the longer the gullywasher, the better.

"Our window was always going to be tight to get to Charlotte for a six o'clock start time," Larson explained. "So instead of making that stress any worse, we were pulling for a rainout. Let us go to Charlotte and then come back to Indy on Monday. I know the fans wanted to get it in, but they weren't experiencing the same stress we were."

Not so fast, ye who makes his living going fast. During that long, wet pause that ended up being a full four hours, a stroll among the tens of thousands seeking shelter beneath the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's frontstretch grandstand revealed plenty of nail-biting among the plenty of people who were dressed in Larson apparel.

"He is the only reason we are here," explained Dot Smith, who made the trip from dirt-track hotbed Springfield, Missouri, along with her husband Dan, both dressed in too-wet matching "Larson 1100" T-shirts. "We didn't watch NASCAR or IndyCar because we like short-track racing, but he's a short-track racer who is running both, so we are here. We just hope he can run both today."

By the time Indy's ritualistic pre-race ceremonies finally started amid the suddenly bright Indiana sunshine, Team Larson knew that making it to Charlotte in time for the start of the 600 was impossible. Larson never hesitated. He was staying. Justin Allgaier would start the NASCAR race in his place, and whenever Larson arrived in North Carolina, he would take back the wheel of his stock car.

"Kyle's priority is this race first and then whatever he can get in Charlotte," explained his coach for the month, 2015 Indy 500 champion Tony Kanaan, who was still coaching up his pupil on the finer points of restarts and pit stops as the world waited out the rain Sunday. "I know NASCAR is his day job and he is the points leader there, hoping to win another championship [to go with his 2021 Cup Series title], but his focus is here and now. Tonight, it will be there and then."

The roar of the crowd for Larson during driver introductions was easily the loudest of the day. And the crowd around his car on the grid was the largest anyone could ever remember seeing, certainly for a rookie.

"Look at that," Larson's teammate and 2016 Indy 500 champ Alexander Rossi said, pointing to the mob as he pressed himself against the pit lane wall to stay out of the way. "My rookie year [also 2016] I think I had my crew and no one else standing with me. This is great for IndyCar racing. And he could win today. Trust me."

Rossi was not wrong. Larson started on the second row, dropped back into the pack early, and indeed made a couple of small mistakes on pit stops and restarts that kept him from dashing back toward the front. But by midrace he was a fixture in the top 10, then the top six, and was threatening to fight for the lead. Until ...

"I smoked the right front tire or something on a green flag pit stop," Larson recalled of a trip down pit road when he had to slow from 230 mph to 60 mph entering the pits with fewer than 70 laps remaining. When the tell-tale smoke blasted off the locked-up tires, the crowd groaned. He was slapped with a pit road speeding penalty by IndyCar officials and after a drive-through penalty was a full lap behind the leaders. On the verge of tears after finishing 18th, Larson said, "If I just could have executed a better race, you never know what could happen. Yeah, just bummed with myself."

As Josef Newgarden celebrated his thrilling second consecutive Indy 500 victory, Larson was consoled by Kanaan and his IndyCar crew. But not for long. There was a golf cart, SUV, chopper and plane waiting to take him to Charlotte.

"This is the part that we had planned and replanned and planned again," Brown explained Sunday. "But I think maybe this is the part that people didn't think about that we certainly had been thinking about for a while. Weather didn't just affect what we were doing at the track, but everything in between the tracks. It was never just about rain delays. It was about airport closures and helicopters grounded and even Donald Trump being at Charlotte. What does that mean for security and transportation?"

Only 17 minutes after the checkered flag fell, Larson, his brow still crossed over an Indy 500 opportunity he felt that he had blown, was out of the helicopter and walking to the Hendrick Motorsports jet, its engines already running. Five minutes later, he was airborne, changed into a fresh K1 firesuit and with an IV bag of fluids in his arm.

The good news? Flying at 540 mph, he would be landing at Concord Regional Airport, only four miles from Charlotte Motor Speedway, in less than an hour. The better news? Allgaier was smoking his way around the track, running 13th and keeping up with the leaders so well that rival Brad Keselowski asked over the radio, "Is Larson already here?"

But the bad news? His plane was also streaking its way over and through the same storm front that had ruined the midday schedule at Indy. He landed at 9:20 p.m. ET. His second chopper ride, less than five minutes long, was with the double backdrop of Charlotte Motor Speedway's lights and also flashes of lightning bearing down on the racetrack.

Larson's last golf cart ride of this longest day rocketed through a cheering infield crowd and carried him to the Hendrick Motorsports pit stall, where he climbed atop the box to sit with crew chief Cliff Daniels and waited for the first opportunity to swap out with Allgaier and finally get back into the cockpit of his No. 5 Chevy.

"We know that Justin gets the driver points for this race since he started it and we knew that when Kyle was going to miss the start of this race, that we would have to file a waiver with NASCAR," Hendrick explained as he waited on Larson to arrive at the Indianapolis airport.

He was speaking of NASCAR's rule that a driver must start every race in order to be eligible for the 10-race series championship postseason field, for which an exception can be made by filing for a waiver if they have a good reason for why they missed the race. Such as an injury, a family emergency, or perhaps attempting to run the Indy 500 and do the Memorial Day Double and provide NASCAR with an immeasurable amount of publicity in the process.

"If Justin can keep the car near the front and Kyle can get it into Victory Lane, then they both get to celebrate," Hendrick said. "There's only one trophy, but I'll figure that out. That's a good problem to have."

The problem with that problem is that it was never a problem in the first place. Because the very moment that Larson climbed atop that pit box in Charlotte, the night skies opened up and rain fell like no one had seen since ... well, 11 hours earlier at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Another two hours of waiting and the race was called. Bell was the winner. Allgaier was credited with a 13th-place finish.

Larson never ran a lap at Charlotte.

"I am very, very thankful for the experience that was so great until today, when everything that could have gone wrong did," Larson said before vanishing into the damp night, lightning still sparking the clouds overhead as Sunday turned into Monday. "Maybe we get to do it again. I hope so. I want to. There's no way it goes like this again, right?"

There's only way to find out. And no matter how many races Kyle Larson wins between now and then, the excruciating pain of the missed opportunities of May 26, 2024, will take up a much larger portion of his brain than those victories will. As Richard Petty has always said, "I won 200 races, but I can tell you a lot more about the 900 I lost."

"Yeah, I'm not ready to have that conversation yet," Hendrick said with a tired laugh, sitting in the terminal of the Hendrick Motorsports hangar, slumped into a chair as he debriefed with his management team. "But Kyle will be ready, sooner than later. That's how racers are built. That's what makes them great. And even when they drive me crazy and wear me out, I love them for that."

Or, as Dan Smith put it, four states and a whole day earlier, in the Indianapolis rain: "There's a reason they make T-shirts with these guys' faces on them and not of the rest of us. Their brains work different, don't they?"