Other than the Indianapolis 500, one good race cannot define a driver’s career, ensure job security or even pay the rent for a month. But it can get people’s attention, and sometimes even change their opinion.
For the past seven years Conor Daly has been an IndyCar vagabond. He got full-time rides with Coyne and Foyt in 2016 and 2017, and for the rest of this past decade he’s either been a one-off at Indy, a replacement, an experiment or an afterthought.
Despite his pedigree, a couple solid years in GP2 and GP3, success in Indy Lights and some strong drives for the six IndyCar teams he’s made cameo appearances with, Daly doesn’t seem to register when car owners are looking down the road.
At 28, he’s not a kid like Rinus Veekay, Colton Herta, Pato O’Ward or Santino Ferrucci and he’s also not ready for the sports car circuit. He’s a tweener with technical savvy and obvious talent, yet tends to be overlooked by many in the IndyCar paddock. He had the ‘party boy’ reputation a couple years ago before getting serious and in shape, and has formed a good relationship with the United States Air Force that’s really helped.
Last May at the Indy 500, he finally experienced life at the top and drove for Andretti Autosport with USAF backing, running as high as third and being right in the mix until the final pit stop. Of course, at the time, we expected good things from Conor and Andretti Autosport. But nobody could have envisioned what he did in Iowa over the weekend.
He put Trevor Carlin’s one-car operation on the pole for the opener at Iowa Speedway, beating Team Penske, Ganassi and Andretti. He led the first 13 laps but faded to eighth by the checkered flag after the handling went away. Starting third on Saturday night, Daly drove the oval race of his life, keeping Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden and Will Power within striking distance and running third, fourth or fifth throughout the first half of the race.
But the box score doesn’t tell the story. He got hosed by the first caution of the race which came right after he’d pitted and put him a lap down. He fought his way back to the front pack in third place, only to have the strategy of a late stop for fresh tires backfire. He finished 13th.
“It’s a shame, and it was tough on our guys because they did a great job and deserved a podium,” said Daly of the Florida-based Carlin team. “We made the car so much better from Friday to Saturday, and we were the only ones to put up a fight against Penske. Us and McLaren.
“If we’d waited just a little longer to pit, we’d have the field down a lap, but that’s the way racing can be. And I ran 80 laps on old tires Friday night and watched guys drive past me like I was tied to a stake, so I wanted new tires to fight on Saturday night. But it turned out there wasn’t that much of a pace difference.
“But we qualified first and third, and it was a great step forward for this team, and I’m proud of everyone.”
A year ago at Texas, Daly got the call to drive the No.59 car when Max Chilton opted to only run road and street courses, along with Indy. After the first practice period he said he couldn’t feel the car, but he and the team kept making changes and wound up 11th in the race. Then he came back and ran sixth at Gateway. Last month in the season-opener at Texas, he finished sixth again – rarified air for a team that’s struggled mightily its first two seasons in the NTT series.
“Last year I was in a more desperate position,” he said, referring to the fact he got a little bossy with the crew. “I was more aggressive in asking what I wanted, and this year it’s all the same guys and Trevor has a great group of people. Because of Gateway I know they can do it, and they’ve made a big step forward in technical development.
“Matt (Greasley) has been my engineer, I’ve known him since our GP3 days, and he’s very calculated and very sharp. You have to have the car under you to do the job, and they’ve given it to me this year.”
One-car teams aren’t supposed to out-qualify or out-run multi-car teams with big budgets, especially on a handling track like Iowa. Derek Daly has told people for years that his kid has the right stuff and understands a chassis as well as anyone today.
“Sure, it’s a challenge with only my feedback, but we stick to the basics,” said Daly, who is now set to run back-to-back races for Ed Carpenter at Mid-Ohio and the Indy 500. “And, honestly, just give me the car I want, and I’ll do the job.
“I mean, I’ve always hated Iowa, and parked my car here in 2016 because it was so bad. But these guys came back this year with stuff we thought would be better and adjusted to my driving style. I would have never dreamed my first pole would be Iowa, and to out-qualify Josef (Newgarden) at that place is really a cool feeling.”
I’ve been beating Conor’s drum for a long time, and hearing the critics mock the suggestion he was good enough to be a full-timer in IndyCar, but you’d have to be pretty dense not to see his value – in and out of the car. But it’s hard to say what 2021 will look like. Obviously Carlin would love to have CD for the ovals, and if teams are allowed to test again, he could probably improve ECR’s road racing program. USAF is likely to be on board wherever he lands, but the most important thing going forward is continuity.
“I hope this shows what consistency can do for me, because I think I thrive in that type of environment,” said Daly, who passed out briefly in pit lane after Saturday’s race and had to go to the medical center to get his body temperature cooled down. “It was really tough out there, and this is the best shape I’ve ever been in.”
Literally and figuratively.