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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.”

Daly’s American Ninja Warrior episode (Monday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC)

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Conor Daly’s attempt at NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior” airs tonight at 8 p.m. ET. The American who drives for A.J. Foyt Racing in the Verizon IndyCar Series received a last-minute invitation to a San Antonio regional qualifier back in March.

At Texas Motor Speedway, Daly checked in with NBCSN IndyCar pit reporter Katie Hargitt to preview the event for the latest edition of “Rapid Fire” presented by Verizon. You can see that above. A link to all Rapid Fire videos from 2017 is linked here.

A quick preview of Daly’s training is below.

Daly and the rest of the IndyCar field is at Elkhart Lake, Wis.’ Road America this weekend for Round 10 of the 17-race season (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Veach sustains heavy impact exiting Turn 1 near end of Friday practice

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INDIANAPOLIS – Another young driver has found the wall in an IndyCar for the first time at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

In the final 20 minutes of practice, Zach Veach had a tank-slapper in the No. 40 Indy Women in Tech Championship presented by Guggenheim Chevrolet for AJ Foyt Racing. The 22-year-old rookie out of Stockdale, Ohio got too deep below the white line on corner entry into Turn 1.

Veach corrected it the first time but on a second correction, overcorrected and went into the wall on the right side. His car continued down the short chute and made secondary contact with the SAFER Barrier in Turn 2.

“Not exactly sure at this point,” Veach said. “We were a little nervous. Took some front wing out. Got to middle of one and it just turned. I’ve never had anything that quickly before. Right on exit, something happened and I lost the car. Not sure if twas my own doing or something let go. I hate it for these guys. We have made a lot of progress. We’ve got tomorrow, weather permitting.”

Veach has been checked, released and cleared to drive but his crew faces a long night of repairs ahead of them.

Conor Daly stays on top during second Gateway session

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Chevrolet again topped the evening test session at Gateway Motorsports Park, and again the name at the top of the time sheets was somewhat of a surprise. Conor Daly backed up his speed from earlier in the day by again turning the fastest lap of the session, doing so at an average speed of 176.907 mph in the No. 4 ABC Supply Co. Chevrolet for AJ Foyt Racing.

Also like the first session, Daly led home an armada from Team Penske, with Helio Castroneves turning the fastest lap of that group and ending the session in second. Juan Montoya, Josef Newgarden, and Simon Pagenaud rounded out the top five.

Scott Dixon was the fastest Honda in sixth, while teammate Tony Kanaan was the only other Honda in the top ten (ninth) on a day in which the Chevrolet teams flexed their muscle.

The session saw only short bursts of running with several stoppages for track inspection, something Gateway Motorsports Park announced proactively via their twitter page just after running began.

Of note: JR Hildebrand, who crashed in the earlier session, did not return to the track, his Ed Carpenter Racing team unable to repair his car after the incident. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Takuma Sato also did not turn laps in the evening session.

Further, INDYCAR and Gateway battled endless tricky track conditions throughout the day. Prior to testing, over nine inches of rain fell in the days leading into the event, and the series and track battled weepers throughout the days. Conditions remained an issue in the evening, forcing the series to stop the running prematurely. INDYCAR and Gateway released the following statement regarding the stoppage.

“Gateway Motorsports Park and INDYCAR overcame tremendous challenges to conduct a successful series open test session today, despite 9.5 inches of rainfall in the two days leading up to the event. Officials worked tirelessly to prepare the racing surface, which included drilling holes to relieve pressure of ground water and additional proactive measures.”

The statement continued, “During the course of today’s practices, conditions developed that made it necessary to stop the test early, within an hour of the scheduled time. The conditions will be promptly addressed by INDYCAR and Gateway officials, and all are confident of a successful solution when the series returns to the track. It was a valuable day for teams to gather information for the race event in August, and a great day for the fans who attended and were able to see their favorite cars and drivers up close.

Times for the second session are below. The Verizon IndyCar Series returns to Gateway on August 26 for the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline.

 

Zach Veach: Foyt Indy 500 seat ‘the best comeback of my career’

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LONG BEACH, Calif. – The first of two weekend confirmations for this year’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil occurred on Friday as Zach Veach was announced in A.J. Foyt Racing’s third Chevrolet for the month of May.

For the 22-year-old out of Stockdale, Ohio, it comes as the culmination of a long road through the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires and a brief hiatus when it looked like his career might have stalled out entirely. Through methodical hard work, development and persistence, Veach’s story is a good one as he’ll arrive for his first Indianapolis 500.

Veach, who will drive the No. 40 Indy Women in Tech Championship presented by Guggenheim entry, has been a mainstay in the MRTI since 2010, when he debuted with Andretti Autosport.

Although he’d won a handful of races en route to a title in the 2011 Cooper Tires Winterfest and posted back-to-back top-five finishes in the 2010 and 2011 regular seasons, he didn’t seem to be an immediate IndyCar prospect.

That said, his name started to emerge on the fringe of the conversation through his business savvy, which seemed advanced for his teenage years. He’d written a book, 99 Things Teens Wish They Knew Before Turning 16 (released on his 16th birthday), and campaigned against distracting driving in those years.

Veach finished 10th in his step up to Star Mazda in 2012 – a field that would include eventual IndyCar drivers Jack Hawksworth, Gabby Chaves and Sage Karam and others such as Connor De Phillippi, Gustavo Menezes, Stefan Rzadzinski, Ashley Freiberg and Corey Lewis who have moved on to sports cars – and then went to Indy Lights in 2013 where he finished seventh.

Veach finished third in Indy Lights in 2014 courtesy of a quantum leap in performance in his second year with Andretti Autosport. He won three times and had a shot at the title going into the final races of the season, but came up short to Chaves and Jack Harvey, who tied on points.

A hand injury and subsequent surgery sidelined his progress and cost him nearly the entire 2015 season. But it was that year, when he was out of the cockpit full-time save for a one-off entry in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with JDC-Miller Motorsports’ Oreca FLM09 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, that may have been the most pivotal in his career to date.

Veach interviewing Tony Kanaan. Photo: IndyCar

He’d met Brian Belardi and stayed in touch with the team owner throughout the year, as one meeting in a year when he kept himself entrenched in the IndyCar paddock as a member of IndyCar Radio. Veach hadn’t considered broadcasting from the start but quickly became a natural; he’s hopped on occasional broadcasts the last two years in both analyst and pit reporting roles. He also stayed in the paddock as a driver of two-seater IndyCars.

“Sitting at home with a cast on my hand and missing Indianapolis 500 practice, that was a time I thought it might be over,” Veach told NBC Sports. “But this is the best comeback of my career. Having Brian Belardi last year was key, and I have to thank him and everyone that kept me out front to get me in front of IndyCar teams.”

Veach’s 2016 season was a comeback story that was a good one in a significantly deeper Indy Lights field. He and Belardi won three races (Road America 1, Watkins Glen, Monterey 1 – incidentally where yours truly filled in on IndyCar Radio as an analyst for the Road America and Watkins Glen races!) and could have won more had it not been for a couple mechanical issues. Teammate Felix Rosenqvist won three races in a limited season, and also lost at least one win for something outside his hands.

He also made his IndyCar test debut for the first time at Sonoma with Ed Carpenter Racing, in what was widely considered a positive test.

But whether or not Veach could translate that solid effort on track into an actual race seat would again come down to those outside the cockpit business and networking lessons learned earlier. It seems a series of connections helped land his primary sponsor for this race.

“I think it was one of the quickest deals in Indy history,” Veach laughed. “From the time I called them, then getting to a verbal agreement that we could do, this took four days. I got lucky because Aaron Brockett, who’s the lead pastor of Traders Point Church, in Zionsville, Indiana, has helped to provide guidance in my life, personally and in my career. I called him and asked if he could help me. That led to Dan (Towress), the President and CEO of Guggenheim Life… and everything snowballed from there.”

Veach understands expectations will be modest and he has a lot to learn, with his first running expected for the Rookie Orientation Program. And Foyt’s team is in the process of learning and developing both the Chevrolet aero kit and engine; Veach is expected to have Andy Brown as engineer and Andy O’Gara as strategist to aid his own development. Brown worked with Matthew Brabham at PIRTEK Team Murray last year and O’Gara was long a staple with wife Sarah Fisher’s Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing and CFH Racing teams through 2015.

A.J. Foyt said the trio of Veach, Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly will be an intriguing group of youngsters.

“I was young at one time, not any more, but one time. Of course, Mother Superior told me we had to put 40 on the car because it’s been 40 years since I won the ’77 race. That’s how we come up with the number,” he said.

“No, I always liked to work with young people. I think that’s how you build winners, is with young people. When you get actually so old, you’re just not going to win. Young guns, they want to win. That’s what we’re looking for.”

For Veach, two of his young colleagues and fellow Indy Lights veterans – Munoz and Chaves – will be key to his development and progression during May. Munoz was his teammate in 2013 and promptly finished second in the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie for Andretti Autosport; Chaves won the Freedom 100 the following year and has quickly become Veach’s best friend. The two hang out regularly and travel together, most recently doing two-seater driver duties at Long Beach. Chaves’ Indianapolis 500 program is close but not confirmed yet.

“Carlos taught me not to be afraid of the white line!” Veach said. “It’s no secret he likes to run down by the curbing. If it’s fast, I’ll transition into it! I’ve always had the little big brother/relationship with him and (his manager). He has three or four races under his belt already.

“I’m leaning on Gabby Chaves too. He’s my closest friend, he’s done the race two times now, and he gives me every bit of advice. I have a lot of good friends to lean on.”

He’ll be one of at least three rookies in this year’s Indianapolis 500 (Harvey, Ed Jones) with potentially more to come.