Kyle Larson

If Tony Kanaan hadn’t seen it for himself Saturday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he might not have believed what NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Larson did in qualifying for his first Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.

It wasn’t just posting the day’s sixth-fastest four-lap average – 232.563 mph -- it was the way Larson handled his engine effectively hiccupping at speed in Turn 1 on his first qualifying run.

“I would have totally freaked out, and I did freak out,” said Kanaan, the 2013 “500” winner who is now Arrow McLaren’s sporting director and Larson’s unofficial advisor. “Kyle was like, ‘Aw, we had a problem; let’s do it again.’

“He was extremely calm. That says a lot about who he is and how he is.”

Larson, 31, said it was a case of not being able to do anything about the brief plenum fire that led to him aborting that first qualifying run. He brought the No. 17 Chevrolet to pit road and let Arrow McLaren do its work.

If Larson needed to mentally regroup, he didn’t show it. However, a second try at the most stressful 10 miles in motorsports was beneficial, he said.

“It was nice to knock the edge off the nerves,” he said after the second run.

Larson said the time on the clock was as exhilarating as he hoped it would be when he agreed to compete in this event. Watching qualifying from afar last year, he was in awe with the speed. His two words: “Holy sh--!”

But that hasn’t been Larson’s reaction this week as he has steered one of these rockets. In fact, he said driving nearly 50 mph faster than he has at IMS in a NASCAR Cup Series stock car has been nothing short of a thrill.

“Oh, yeah, yeah,” he said, smiling. “It was fun and less sketchy than I expected, which is always nice. When the grip’s there, it doesn’t feel (so fast).

“It’s just really cool, and I’m proud to be a part of the biggest sporting event in the world. Now, I’m excited to learn about racing (in the “500.”)

Larson returned to the 2.5-mile oval at 4:40 p.m. for a third qualifying run, which he aborted after a lap of 233.499 mph. Now he has at least another four laps on the clock to go.

Larson was one of 12 drivers to advance to Sunday’s Firestone Fast 12. If he is one of the fastest six drivers in that session, he will have a chance make a run for the pole.

Sunday’s qualifying action begins at 3 p.m. ET (NBC, Peacock, INDYCAR Radio Network). Larson will have Arrow McLaren teammates Alexander Rossi and Pato O’Ward in the session as they challenge the three Team Penske drivers – Will Power, Scott McLaughlin and reigning race winner Josef Newgarden – who occupy the provisional front row.

Larson became the third NASCAR champion to earn a starting position in the “500,” following Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson. Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and Tony Stewart had not yet won Cup Series championships when they competed in this race.

“These kind of guys you see once every 40 or 50 years,” said Kanaan, the 2004 NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion. “Like A.J. (Foyt) and Mario (Andretti). I’m a fan (of Larson’s), a big fan.”

Kanaan and four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon got to play the role of “500” fans Saturday, and they played it well. Gordon, who is Hendrick Motorsports’ vice chairman, pulled out his cell phone as Larson came to the checkered flag to capture the moment with a video. Later, Kanaan and Gordon joined Larson and the crew in the traditional qualifying photo on pit road.

“Yeah, how about that?!” said Gordon, who won NASCAR’s Brickyard 400 at IMS a record five times. “Who would ever thought that would happen? It was so cool.

“You know, this whole Indy qualifying has been so nerve-wracking, and I’m still learning so much about it. I can’t believe my heart rate, and it’s not even Race Day.”

With the Borg-Warner Trophy only a short distance away, Kanaan said it was a surreal experience to be a part of a qualifying photograph without being the driver sitting on the car.

“That is the weirdest thing ever,” he said. “I got a text (from a team publicist) to take off my sunglasses (for the photo). As a driver you say, ‘No, I’m not taking them off.’ I didn’t even know (where to stand). I guess, at first, I was off camera.”

But don’t let Kanaan fool you. It was a big moment for him and the rest.

“I guess I’m going to be that guy asking (the driver) to sign my picture,” Kanaan said, laughing.

Larson will happily sign it.