INDIANAPOLIS – A pair of Verizon IndyCar Series rookies who’ve spent a lot of time at the current home of the U.S. Grand Prix, Circuit of The Americas in Austin, had damn good runs Saturday at the former home of the U.S. Grand Prix, the now redone Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
Conor Daly led 14 laps in the No. 18 Jonathan Byrd’s Hospitality Honda and finished sixth in the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis, after starting 22nd.
Alexander Rossi set the fastest race lap by several tenths, and finished 10th after starting 12th in the No. 98 Castrol Edge/Curb Honda.
And in both cases, the good friends and current Sunoco Rookie-of-the-Year contenders could have had even better results to show for their efforts – which in many respects tells the stories of their year.
In Daly’s case first, he was running 17th behind Helio Castroneves in the No. 3 hum by Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet in 16th, both having just made a pit stop two laps earlier on Lap 37.
And then their good friend the full-course caution came out on Lap 38, for Sebastien Bourdais stalled on course at Turn 2.
It meant Castroneves and Daly would cycle from the last two cars on the lead lap to the front of the field shortly thereafter.
Daly took off from there and using one of his push-to-passes, went for it on the inside and passed Castroneves for the lead into Turn 1 after the restart on Lap 46. He held the lead for 14 laps until his final pit stop on Lap 60.
Ultimately he’d fall back in the final stint, the car not as good on the last set of Firestone red alternate tires as it had been when he was leading. He fell into the clutches of Charlie Kimball and Graham Rahal and lost spots to them, but held off Scott Dixon in the waning laps.
“We had a good start. Got around some people on restart. Then I got around Helio,” Daly told NBC Sports post-race. “The car was good and we used it to pull away. We still have a lot to work on. We had a lot of upshifts denied. The engine was over mileaged out. It was really tugging hard. We tried to keep it together!
“I used an overtake on the restart instead! Helio was going every which way. We were good on brakes and we were really trimmed. But that was my second to last one. Then had to use it on out laps trying to get through traffic, then ran out.
“Dixon was behind me, which isn’t normal this year, and he didn’t pass us, which was great. If we can hold off Dixon and fight at the front we’re doing our jobs and getting better. We have to keep improving.”
With the 14 laps led, Daly increased his season total to 29 laps led. He’s tops in the field among Honda drivers in that department – Rahal has led eight laps this year and Ryan Hunter-Reay three. That’s it, total.
Fellow Honda runner Rossi was unlucky not to lead because he was driving better than ever in his first stint, having ascended from 12th on the grid up as high as sixth from Laps 28 to 39. He’d even snookered Will Power into a mistake at Turn 7, pressuring the defending race winner and 2014 series champion into a spin.
However Rossi was later assessed what he deemed a questionable penalty for exceeding track limits and had to cede ninth place to teammate Carlos Munoz. It dropped him to 10th, and like at Phoenix earlier this year, the result did not tell the story for him.
“The pace we had was one of the best on track,” Rossi told NBC Sports post-race, having as noted been set the fastest race lap.
“It’s disappointing to be 10th. I would have been pleased to be 10th a week ago. So it’s weird how goals shift. Really questionable penalty on the next to last stint and we’ll have to review that. But the Andretti Autosport team did a great job, and the car was fantastic the whole race. There’s something positive to build on.”
Rossi did laugh in noting that considering it’s been a tough start to the season for the entire team, he’s almost happy to be frustrated with his best career finish to date.
“The car was a huge step forward all weekend,” he said. “It’s tough but I’m a bit relieved at the same time.”
Team co-owner Michael Andretti expressed effusive praise for Rossi post-race, while noting his frustration with the rest of his other cars.
“Yeah it was his best event,” Andretti told NBC Sports. “I think they did a good job with getting the setup early, more to his liking. They’re making progress.
“But as a team, we had a horrible weekend. We have a lot of work to do.”
Daly’s teammate Gabby Chaves finished 17th in his first start; Rossi ended second best of the Andretti quartet with Hunter-Reay ninth, Munoz 12th and Marco Andretti 15th.
With Max Chilton an anonymous 14th, the rookie battle between Daly, Rossi and Chilton remains tight. Daly now sits 13th in points with 88, while Chilton is 16th on 80 and Rossi is 17th on 79.
Spencer Pigot and Matthew Brabham drove well most of the weekend and ended their races 11th and 16th, respectively.