Conor Daly enjoyed the best weekend of his Verizon IndyCar Series career by far this weekend at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit Presented by Quicken Loans, and in all honesty, things could have gone even better for the driver of the No. 18 Jonathan Byrd’s Hospitality Honda for Dale Coyne Racing.
The 24-year-old out of Noblesville, Ind., executed Coyne’s strategy to perfection on Saturday with a faultless drive from 16th up to second and his first career IndyCar podium.
Then on Sunday, Daly was perhaps unlucky to start only 21st – he’d been assessed a penalty for going off course at Turn 3 in qualifying to cause a local yellow flag and thus lose his fastest lap in the session. Despite this and the would-be potential first top-five starting position – his best time would have been third in his group of 11 – he and the team recovered again to come from 21st to sixth.
The stats here are interesting. Daly’s podium is the first for the team since Carlos Huertas’ shock win in the first Houston race of another doubleheader weekend in 2014. It’s also the first team any Dale Coyne Racing driver has banked back-to-back top-10 finishes in any race since the late Justin Wilson finished 10th in both Toronto races on the same day in 2014.
For Daly, the road to get there has been a circuitous one. Obviously the last few years have been spent driving a veritable smorgasbord of different machinery – it’s been anything from IndyCar to GP2, GP3 and sports cars primarily.
But now, in his first full season in IndyCar, he and the team, including veteran team manager Darren Crouser and engineer Michael Cannon, are starting to find a rhythm from a results standpoint.
Daly also led laps on Saturday – his four then took his season total up to 33 in three races – and coupled with the sixth at the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis in early May he’s riding a relatively good wave of momentum.
Daly was quick to thank the Coyne team and his team owner on Saturday after standing on an IndyCar podium for the first time. That day, the driver born in 1991 stood next to two drivers born in the 1970s in Juan Pablo Montoya and Sebastien Bourdais, guys who Daly said he grew up watching as a kid.
“I am a happy human. I mean, yeah, Dale Coyne Racing puts me in positions far greater than I deserve at times. Gosh, they do all the right things strategically,” Daly said.
“Dale is a wizard, I think. He’s up there calculating everything in his head. Maybe he can see the future, I don’t know. But it was awesome.
“The car was good, though, too. This morning we were seventh in the warmup. Yesterday we had problems in qualifying. We haven’t been able to show our potential in the car. To finally run up front, not get gobbled up by the guys around us, sort of proved we had the pace as well. That was a nice thing, as well.”
He reflected on what that journey has meant to make it to a podium for the first time. In another perhaps ironic twist, Daly’s first podium came on the same day and in front of the same team he raced for in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship last year, Performance Tech Motorsports, where Daly scored several podiums last year in PC but had several gut-wrenching near-misses for would-be wins.
“I just hope I can stay around for a few years, for many years,” Daly said. “I mean, it’s taken so long to get to this point. Dale was the guy. Jonathan and David Byrd. They got together with Dale to put this program together for me. Sure enough, I have a job. That’s a lot of fun. It’s a fun job.
“It’s really, really difficult. This series is the most competitive series in the world. Everyone, we’re fighting for just the smallest amounts of time. That’s why it’s been frustrating.
“I have to continue to remember this is my first year, right? Everything has been all over the place up until this. To be on the podium my first year, it’s a really rewarding experience. I just hope I can do more obviously.
“Now the goal is to continue to try and stay consistent. Indy is the only non-finish we’ve had so far this year. I just hope to continue that.”
After Sunday’s race, Daly was frustrated in the moment to have lost that potential top-five starting position. The team tried to fight it but to no avail.
“Yeah, we were meant to start fifth! I’m really disappointed about the qualifying thing. I still think it’s ridiculous,” Daly told NBC Sports.
“Yeah we tried. I went to them and I understand their point, but then I don’t. The way the rule is written, I get it, but then also I don’t get it because I didn’t affect anyone. In the first minute and a half of qualifying, when you’re in the run-off for three and a half seconds, you get your entire session ruined for something like that?
“I can understand if I caused a red flag… I think if the dude had pulled his hand earlier it wouldn’t have been (a yellow flag). I was already gone by the time Graham (Rahal) came in the sector. I let him by the next corner. It didn’t hurt him because he still qualified seventh and was still up there. It was just in the first two minutes.”
Where Daly made an interesting point about his season on the whole was the fact his accident at the 100th Indianapolis 500, thus far his only non-finish this season, proved hugely costly in the season long Sunoco Rookie of the Year battle.
Entering the race, Daly had 88 points (13th) to Max Chilton’s 80 (16th) and Alexander Rossi’s 79 (17th).
After double points in the Indianapolis 500 and Rossi’s shock win, Rossi vaulted to 203 points (sixth) while finishes of 15th (Chilton) and 29th (Daly) left them with just 122 and 108 points, respectively, 18th and 19th in points.
After Detroit this weekend, Daly is back to 15th in the standings on 177 points, with Chilton stuck on 139 (19th) after a nightmare double DNF weekend. With 10th and 12th place results, Rossi lost 30 points to Daly this weekend but is still fifth overall on 242 points, 65 clear of Daly for top rookie.
“To be fair, at the 500 I think we were well inside the top 10 as well,” Daly said of the Indianapolis 500, before his incident. “That’s what we were going for. Through circumstances out of our control, we didn’t get that. Sadly that was also double points, so realistically, even though we had a great weekend, we’re still clawing our way back from such a disaster, especially in the rookie standings. It kills us. Alex won the race. That’s great for him, we’ve just got to work extra harder.
“I think everyone’s thinking the same thing, we’re all jealous, right? That’s it,” he joked about Rossi winning. “But in the end, there were a lot of great articles proving that he did a great job. And he did – he won the Indy 500. And it’s a cool story for young Americans. It does good for our rookie class for sure and rookies aspiring to be in IndyCar in general.”
All told though Daly was quick to note the important point that’s been obvious in pretty much all road and street races with the exception of Barber this year – he’s racing well and extracting nearly the maximum out of every event.
“We go from 21st to sixth, we go from 16th to second. I think we can race, we’re proving that,” Daly said. “These races are very much about track position when it comes to strategy. We’re working our minds very hard at a very high level to try and get to that point. It takes a little bit of luck to get there too.
“But I think where we are strong is out laps. As soon as we get clear track, that’s where we actually make up the gap. So when we do have those yellows, we cycle forward quite a lot because we’ve made up time.”
Daly will continue his first full season with a proper “rookie” outing this weekend in Texas, as he prepares for his first 1.5-mile oval race at Texas Motor Speedway (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN).
“I have never been on a track like that but I can’t wait. I have always wanted to race at Texas, ever since watching Sam Hornish Jr. win there back in the day,” he said.
“We had such great momentum last year coming off this race, and then I didn’t get to do it. So now I cannot wait for Texas. No idea how it’s going to go, but it’s going to be fun.”