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Daly: ‘I so dearly want to do well and have a long career in IndyCar’

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The old saying that there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics is probably an apt one to describe the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season at A.J. Foyt Racing, for its pair of new drivers, Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz, and its engine manufacturer/aero kit in Chevrolet. The fusion of newness has not made it easy for anyone.

Based purely on the statistics, it’s been a tough year, and that’s not something either driver will dispute.

Munoz (16th) and Daly (19th) are in two of the four lowest ranked positions among those who’ve competed in all or all but one race. Neither driver has finished better than seventh, Daly has the team’s only top-10 start (10th in Detroit race two), the team is the only full-time team that hasn’t led a lap and the future here might be uncertain for the lineup of determined young guns, neither of whom is older than 25.

Dig a bit deeper though and the nature of how competitive the series is and the fact someone has to be at the back, for better or worse, has stacked the deck against the team anyway so it shouldn’t be a surprise the year’s been as challenging as it has. That makes it harder for performances to shine through when the stats say what they do, although both Daly and Munoz have had flashes this year.

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 10: The car of Conor Daly, driver of the #4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet, is serviced during Pit Stop Practice prior to the Verizon IndyCar Series Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 10, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

For his part, Daly needs a solid final five races of the year to quiet the criticism some will throw at him. He has the team’s best result of the year – seventh at Texas – and had other races such as Detroit race two and Phoenix where early or late race promise faded by no fault of his own.

The 25-year-old out of Noblesville, Ind. makes an important point that getting better does take time, and given what he was still able to accomplish in races last year with respectable race craft, he is a better driver than what the year’s indicated.

“It’s been tough mentally to deal with it because I so dearly want to do well and have a long career in IndyCar,” Daly told NBC Sports. “I know I can do it. I’ve been at the front before, where I’ve led races, and come close to winning races. I know there are engineers and there’s people I work with that believe in me.

“After such a difficult year you have to stay focused. I know the guys around me know – Larry and AJ and our engineers work really hard as well to make this work and continue to improve. It’s not an easy job. We are out there working to make it happen.”

Daly was also thrown a preseason curveball on top of the team and manufacturer changes when his engineer changed two weeks before the season started. Mike Colliver took over as lead on the No. 4 ABC Supply Co. Chevrolet and has earned Daly’s plaudits.

“I think Mike’s a smart guy. He’s very keen on our damper development,” Daly said. “It’s one of the areas of development within IndyCar. He’s been good at keeping us on track and focuses on the good things we’ve done. He takes my frustration at times and deals with it. I really want to do well. Sometimes I get emotional about it.”

Daly looks at his contemporary Josef Newgarden, a longtime friend and rival from karting, Skip Barber and into Indy Lights as proof positive of how long it takes to ascend the competitive pecking order as a young driver within IndyCar.

Newgarden, only a year older at 26, didn’t even have a single top-10 finish his rookie season, didn’t score a top-five until his 18th race start in Sao Paulo, Brazil, May 2013 and his first podium until Baltimore in September that year, his 30th race. In 2015, in his fourth season and after 50-plus starts, Newgarden won his first race and made his first top-10 in points.

Strategy certainly aided Daly last year at Dale Coyne Racing but he was a regular top-10 finisher with five of them in his first full season, including posting a second place in Detroit and fourth place in Watkins Glen.

AVONDALE, AZ – APRIL 29: Carlos Munoz of Colombia, driver of the #14 A.J. Foyt Enterprises Chevrolet and Conor Daly, driver of the #4 A.J. Foyt Enterprises Chevrolet walk to driver introductions before the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 29, 2017 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

While Newgarden has ascended to Team Penske, Daly and Munoz have represented the hardships that affect other young drivers in the sport – trying to make that climb with a new team after switching.

“I give Carlos a lot of credit at getting through some of the difficult things,” Daly said. “I’m always focused on the next race. I think Carlos is the next one. It’s difficult for him coming from a seriously large organization. Foyt is just a smaller team and we know that. But there’s a lot of great people here.

“From the outside, it’s easy to judge and blame the driver. For me – this is only my second year, and I’ve done research on this – it takes time. I’m not gonna keep using that as an excuse, but it’s sort of a fact. Josef Newgarden is a extremely successful IndyCar driver. I use Josef as a good point of reference as he does well right now and I grew up with him.

“We as a team work on what we can do. We don’t focus on the chatter; it’s not helpful for us as we develop our program. If people want to know what’s up, they should come and ask us, and talk about it rather than say, ‘I think this is what’s going on.'”

Signs such as being the second fastest Chevrolet driver in the Toronto race this weekend (sixth fastest on the charts overall and with the sixth fastest race lap) are there of the improved potential but again, the depth of field makes it hard to stand out. And as Daly explained, trying to get up to grips with everything has been a challenge.

“We struggle to find the overall new tire pace whether it be certain tracks, or ovals, road circuits, street circuits,” he said. “There’s been a constant evolution of our setups. We’re always discovering something new the Chevy kit and Chevy engine might like. Say we found a different gear strategy, that helps us instead of getting beaten in certain areas.

“It’s really easy to lay blame on a lot of different things. This is not an easy job we’re trying to do. It’s top level motor racing. Carlos and I are fighting every weekend to get the right information we need. It’s not easy.

“A lot of people have different opinions. We don’t have the results yet, but there are things we’re absolutely doing better as a team. And it might be next year where can we show those things to the world.”

The quest to ensure Daly gets a proper next year – it’s easy to forget he only has 33 career IndyCar starts under his belt, one of the smallest numbers in the field – begins with next weekend’s Honda Indy 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Daly rebounded from an accident in practice there to lead on an off-sequence strategy and ultimately finish sixth. It was a nice recovery on a tough weekend there, when new teammate RC Enerson impressed from the off on debut and brought Daly forward to help raise his game.

Surprisingly, given the number of tracks he’s raced on in his career, this was his first career start at Mid-Ohio.

“That finish was big, man. It was a tough weekend for me,” he said. “I’d went off track a couple times. But only about halfway through the race – I found not just a better way to drive the car but use the brakes better enough.

“It was from then on we really fast. Strategy helped us. But once we were there, in the lead, it was a strong run for us. It was nice to have that finish, and come back up front.

“You’re always learning more about the tracks. The key is hopefully we start from a better position and get into things quicker.”

Spencer Pigot ready for full-season IndyCar effort with ECR

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After spending the last two years in a part-time role with Ed Carpenter Racing, contesting the road and street course races in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, Spencer Pigot now gets a long-awaited chance at a full-season effort in 2018.

Moving over to the No. 21 entry, which has featured ECR’s full-season driver since 2016, Pigot has seen slight differences in his off-season prep ahead of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

“We were one of the teams that got to a handful of days testing the aero kit, so I obviously did all the running on the road courses, but I was able to do a few laps on the ovals when Ed was testing. So, that wouldn’t have happened (if I was part-time still),” he told NBC Sports.

However, outside of that increase in testing and a little learning some new tracks – he has not raced at ISM Raceway, Gateway Motorsports Park, Pocono Raceway, or Iowa Speedway in an IndyCar – the changes to Pigot’s off-season program have not been dramatic.

“There’s definitely some things I’ll need to learn, but as far as off-season prep: nothing too dramatic, nothing too different.”

Pigot’s first full-season campaign saw its first official outing of the 2018 season last weekend during the open test at ISM Raceway. While he and the ECR team struggled to find speed much of the weekend – they languished outside of the top ten in the results of the first three sessions – things took a turn for the better during the final session of the weekend on Saturday night, when Pigot ended up ninth on the speed charts.

He ended up 14th in the combined results for the weekend, noting that he and the team still want to find more outright speed.

“I thought throughout the test that our average long run pace was okay, but we were still missing the outright pace to be where we need to be come qualifying time,” he revealed. “I think that we definitely made a step forward Saturday night and definitely have a much better idea of a direction we can head and go with when we go back.”

In terms of long-run practice, Pigot noted that tire degradation became much more prevalent, which made running with others cars around you somewhat of a challenge. Though, he emphasized that tire degradation could be beneficial for racing.

“Talking to some of the other guys, it seems a little bit harder to run behind people as the tires go off because the tires are degrading pretty quick with the lack of downforce as well,” he explained. “So, it’s going to be tricky, it’s going to be sliding around a little bit more than what guys have experienced in the past. But, I think everyone’s under the same kind of idea that it’s going to be better racing, and especially at (ISM Raceway) it should be exciting.”

Pigot did get some practice at overtaking at ISM and got a feel for what he may be able to expect when IndyCar returns in April for the Phoenix Grand Prix, and while he acknowledged it was difficult to judge during testing, he did feel like he could run around other cars without much of an issue.

“It’s not like a race when everyone comes in the pits at the same time and you’re all on similar tires, so it’s kind of hard to know exactly. But, I thought we were pretty good,” he detailed. “I thought I was able to run pretty close to guys in front of me and was able to make a few passes when other guys made mistakes or might have gone a little high.”

The test also served as Pigot’s first IndyCar venture on a short oval – he last ran on a short oval in 2015 during his Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship season.

“The corners definitely come up quick. There’s not much time to really relax or think about too much,” Pigot quipped when describing his first time on a short oval.

He continued, “You’ve got to concentrate pretty hard on being precise because the line there is very narrow so you have to make sure that you’re where the grip is at all points throughout the corner. And then, when everyone’s out there and you run in traffic, it’s just like you’re constantly in a corner, so it’s a little more difficult to get big runs and drafts off people. But I think it’ll definitely play into the hands of guys that have their cars set up well and can be easier on the tires.”

And in becoming the team’s full-time driver, Pigot is seeing a slight increase in his leadership role within the team, especially as it relates to testing and development, with Pigot doing the lion’s share of testing during the winter on road courses.

But, he also emphasized the oval prowess of teammate, and team owner, Ed Carpenter as something he will lean on when he ventures out on other ovals for the first time this year.

“Especially as we’re trying to learn this new aero kit, I was the one that pretty much did all the testing on the road and street courses. It was kind of me and the engineers trying to develop the car and work towards the setup that’s going to work for us. So, there’s definitely a little more responsibility in that. But, then on the ovals, obviously Ed’s there and he’s a great teammate to have and to learn from and bounce ideas off of. But, yeah, it’s definitely a more involved role within the team,” Pigot explained.

Pigot and ECR will test two more times, at Barber Motorsports Park and Sebring International Raceway, in the month of February prior to the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 11.

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