MADISON, Ill. – Conor Daly put on perhaps the best drive he’s had in his Verizon IndyCar Series career to finish fifth in the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline.
Starting 11th, Daly was running strong early before he slid through his pit stall during a sequence of pit stops, which saw his No. 4 ABC Supply Co. Chevrolet plummet down the running order.
From there, the A.J. Foyt Enterprises driver needed to pull off some aggressive moves to work his way back forward, and he did exactly that, especially on the restarts, when he frequently used the outside line to make passes.
“I loved the high lane. I learned from Tomas Scheckter back in the day: Always go high on the restarts. That’s what I went for and it worked on all the restarts,” Daly quipped regarding his restarts.
Daly added that he accepted full responsibility for slipping through his pit stall, highlighting that the slick pit lane simply caught him out.
“I did it to myself. We had a good start, a good first few stints and then I just slid through the box. Really slick pit lane and it was just something that I didn’t catch. But then after that I was determined to get to the front, because I knew the car was good.”
Further, he also had to survive a fierce battle with Chip Ganassi Racing’s Charlie Kimball when battling over sixth place, which actually saw the two make contact as they jockeyed for track position.
Daly, as he detailed, was none too happy about how Kimball was defending – or in his view, blocking.
“(Charlie) hit me like twice. It was unbelievable. And he hit (my teammate Carlos Munoz) too – he knocked Carlos nearly into the wall, and he drove into my wing as I was coming underneath him. It was just a shame to see that. Normally I race together quite well with him, but yeah that was just kind of silly,” Daly expressed.
Kimball, for his part, labeled it hard racing, explaining that the contact between the two resulted from them simply fighting over the same real estate.
“I think he was trying to beat me to the bottom. But, just with the draft and the way the Chevy is, he ran into the back of me,” Kimball told NBC Sports of the incident.
Kimball added the nature of the track and the importance of track position, along with Honda’s aero disadvantage on the straightaways, forced drivers to defend aggressively.
“The way we were down the straights and the way the racing was here, you had to do everything you could to keep track position.”
Kimball finished seventh, which was his best oval result of the year, and second best overall (sixth at Road America).
Tony DiZinno contributed to this report from Gateway Motorsports Park
One of the annual highlights of the Verizon IndyCar Series unofficial “summer break” between Mid-Ohio and Pocono is Robin Miller and Tony Kanaan’s annual trip to the Indiana State Fair.
Miller, an NBCSN contributor and Kanaan, a 20-year IndyCar veteran, continued their tradition together this year. Among those who also joined in included Conor Daly, a native Hoosier from Noblesville, Ind., and two more NBCSN IndyCar pit reporters in Katie Hargitt and Anders Krohn.
You can see the shenanigans above.
Foyt, Coyne optimistic about Mid-Ohio after testing
Along with Felix Rosenqvist and Chip Ganassi Racing, two other teams visited the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for testing ahead of this weekend’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (Sunday July 30, 3:00 p.m., CNBC). A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Dale Coyne Racing sent their drivers and teams to Mid-Ohio in hopes of getting a leg up on things and building optimism ahead of this weekend.
For Foyt’s team in particular, the optimism is needed. Combined, drivers Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly have only three top tens (two for Munoz, one for Daly) across a total of 24 starts, making them desperate for strong results to come their way.
Mid-Ohio presents an opportunity for Foyt’s duo to right the ship. Munoz has finishes of fourth, ninth, and third in three starts at the Lexington, Ohio road course, while Daly led late in last year’s race and finished an impressive sixth.
And a productive test last week has both feeling hopeful. “We needed this test to try big steps and different options and I think we gained a lot from where we started to where we finished,” said Munoz, whose best 2017 finish of seventh came at Barber Motorsports Park in April.
Munoz added that, while they are still playing catch up a little, the team gained valuable information that should help them this weekend. “The car was much more competitive from where we started so we closed the gap but we need a little bit more to compete with the top guys. But the information that we gathered will help us to show up stronger than we did at the test so I’m looking forward to going back,” he asserted.
Daly echoed Munoz’s sentiments and added that his near-win last year makes him upbeat ahead of the weekend. “It was a really productive (test) for us. Every day with this car and aero package we are learning more. I feel like I came quite close to winning the race last year so I’m hoping to have another strong result this year,” Daly expressed.
Technical Director Will Phillips added that the knowledge they gained should help them at Watkins Glen International and Sonoma Raceway at the end of the season, particularly in terms of maximizing the grip from the tires.
“We certainly believe that the area we made an improvement in will help us at all the road courses to come – we have been slow to extract performance from the tires at times and it was in this area that some changes we made had a very positive response,” Phillips described. “We will keep our feet on the ground but are optimistic that we can carry the gains through for the remainder of the year, not just for Mid-Ohio.”
On the other side, Dale Coyne Racing has been a giant-killer in 2017, winning at St. Petersburg with Sebastien Bourdais and finishing third at the Indianapolis 500 with Ed Jones. James Davison, Tristan Vautier, and Esteban Gutierrez have also impressed in fill-in roles for the injured Bourdais.
And while the team has also incurred more than it’s fair share of crash damage, they have consistently showcased speed at nearly every event, and the team’s drivers are confident Mid-Ohio will yield more of the same.
“We had a really good test last week at Mid-Ohio. It was very positive and we worked on a lot of things,” said Ed Jones, who has four starts at Mid-Ohio from his days in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, with a best finish of sixth. “The car seemed pretty fast compared to others that were there. As we saw at Road America, it’s beneficial to be able to test somewhere before we race there. It can give you an advantage early on and hopefully we can produce another good result because of it.”
Teammate Esteban Gutierrez, making his sixth start for the team this weekend, is more modest of his expectations, but did reveal that a top ten finish could be realistic.
“In terms of objectives for the weekend, I want to keep on learning and it would be nice to reach the top ten. We know that it’s been a pretty steep learning curve for me in IndyCar but we’ve made some progress and hopefully we can make our way into the top ten pretty soon,” Gutierrez detailed.
Of the drivers mentioned here, Jones ranks the highest in the championship standings, currently sitting 12th. Munoz sits 15th, Daly 19th, and Gutierrez 25th in his fill-in role.
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.
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.
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.”