NASCAR's Kyle Larson enters conversation with F1's Verstappen as best drivers in the world

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INDIANAPOLIS — Ask almost any hardcore motorsports fan who the best driver in the world is right now and the answer is probably going to be Formula 1’s three-time reigning champion.

But Alexander Rossi has raced against Max Verstappen, just as he has raced against NASCAR star Kyle Larson. And now that he is teammates with Larson for his Indianapolis 500 debut, Rossi firmly believes Larson can hold his own with anyone.

“Dude,” Rossi said, “I think he’s already towards the top, so I don’t know. Put him at the top? Like, he’s ‘The Man.’”

As good as Verstappen, who has won 48 of 72 races in F1 since 2021?

“I would say they’re on the same level,” Rossi replied, “which is like, yeah, that’s a pretty big deal.”

Larson qualified fifth on Sunday for his first Indianapolis 500, then flew to North Carolina, where he finished fourth at North Wilkesboro Speedway in NASCAR’s $1 million All-Star race that night. This Sunday, he will be the fifth driver in history to attempt “The Double” by running both the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte on the same day.

Tony Stewart in 2001, his second attempt, remains the only driver to complete all 1,100 miles. He finished third in the NASCAR nightcap, the best showing by any of the Double drivers.

Not only is Larson capable of completing the grueling feat of two races in two wildly different race cars in two different states, but people believe he might be a contender to actually win both races. He is among the betting favorites for the Indy 500 and the Coke 600, according to BetMGM Sportsbook.

Larson won what has become one of NASCAR’s crown jewels in 2021, his championship season. His two-year Indy 500 deal is a joint effort between Arrow McLaren Racing and Hendrick Motorsports, his NASCAR team, with Jeff Gordon among the Hendrick executives who watched him qualify at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday.

Still, the idea that Larson could win the Indy 500 was mind-blowing to Rossi, who knows what it’s like to do it as a rookie. Rossi reached victory lane when he made his debut in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” in 2016.

“Wow, damn. I’ll be so annoyed,” Rossi said of a Larson win. “I’ll understand how everyone else felt when I won. Is he capable of doing it? Yeah. Would I be happy for the team? Yeah. Would I be internally annoyed? Yeah.”

Larson had the same feelings a year ago following NASCAR’s street-course race in Chicago, which was won in the rain by Shane van Gisbergen in the New Zealander’s debut. After van Gisbergen won NASCAR’s first-ever street race, Chase Elliott said the Kiwi “made me look bad,” and Larson wondered whether van Gisbergen “thinks we all suck.”

Rossi said a win by Larson would have the same effect. “We know he’s good,” Rossi said, “but for him to come into our world, and in his first event win, like, that doesn’t reflect well on us.”

Two-time IndyCar champion Alex Palou disagreed, saying Larson could add even more cache to the Indy 500.

“It’s Kyle Larson. I don’t think it would hurt,” Palou said. “If Kyle Larson wins, it’s Kyle Larson, so whatever. He wins everything. So I don’t think it would make us look as idiots. It’s not that I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, if he wins, that’s cool.’ I don’t want him to win. But I think he will be there, for sure.”

Larson was back at Indianapolis Motor Speedway early Monday after the All-Star race, walking onto the front stretch to take the traditional photograph of the 33-driver field with the Borg-Warner Trophy in the midst of them.

As he sat on the pit wall in casual conversation, The Associated Press asked him about comparisons to Verstappen. Larson’s dark sunglasses masked what appeared to be shock on his face, almost as if he seemed to think the idea ludicrous.

“Not in an F1 car!” Larson replied. “I can’t beat him in an F1 car. And I bet he can beat me in an Indy car, just based off his street and road course experience.”

So, where could Larson hold his own against the Dutchman?

“I mean, I hope I can beat him in a sprint car,” Larson said.

He thought the entire conversation was a hypothetical — a waste of time. “I don’t understand how this can even be a thing,” he said. “If you don’t run multiple disciplines, how can anyone say you are the best?”

Like it or not, Larson will make his case for consideration on Sunday.

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