MotorSportsTalk continues its look through the Verizon IndyCar Series field, driver-by-driver. Conor Daly earned an overdue first full-time season in IndyCar and generally maximized his opportunities with Dale Coyne Racing.
Conor Daly, No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda
- 2015: 28th Place (5 Starts), Best Finish 6th, Best Start 10th, 0 Top-5, 1 Top-10, 12 Laps Led, 18.6 Avg. Start, 17.4 Avg. Finish
- 2016: 18th Place, Best Finish 2nd, Best Start 7th, 2 Top-5, 5 Top-10, 56 Laps Led, 18.1 Avg. Start, 14.4 Avg. Finish
Conor Daly was, as one article I read earlier this year, “The bro we didn’t realize racing needed until he arrived.” Damn if a kid hasn’t worked harder and stayed persistent enough to beat down that door to a full-time IndyCar seat in five years, and after his tortuous, confusing, convoluted and winding road to get here, he finally achieved his dream with Dale Coyne Racing and the Jonathan Byrd’s Hospitality group support this year. All honesty, I was overjoyed for him, and judging by the amount of positive reaction from fans I saw, I wasn’t alone.
Daly’s year was a strange one. When he qualified well, he didn’t finish well. On the contrary, when he qualified poorly, he got in good finishing position thanks to Coyne’s “wizardry” – Daly’s term – and his race pace was arguably his strongest component of the 2016 season. The podium at Detroit was fully deserved, as were the rest of his top-10 finishes and all 56 laps he led this year. In actuality, he outscored his fellow full-season rookie Alexander Rossi once you excluded the two double-points races. In the 14 races that paid standard points, Daly ended ahead of Rossi 275-246, but lost the top rookie honors by way of being outscored a seemingly unfathomable 184-38 margin in the two double points rounds.
Drivers will make mistakes at this level though and that’s part of the learning process. A would-have-been top-12, maybe top-10 finish at the Indianapolis 500 went begging when he spun trying to avoid Mikhail Aleshin’s accident. Then there was that crash at Texas when he overcorrected and was saved from a head-on appointment with the wall only by Josef Newgarden’s car being there. On the bright side, it meant he got to play TV reporter in the makeup race in August.
There were a couple other tough moments, too. An outright top-10 – say sixth place – went begging at Road America after a suspension component failed and sent him into the gravel at Turn 1. The spin in practice at Watkins Glen was a tough setback. The combination of an engine failure and an exhaust issue at Sonoma made for a nightmare final weekend. Then there was the fact that while Daly had the measure of more experienced teammates Gabby Chaves and Luca Filippi most of the year, when fellow rookie RC Enerson arrived the final three races, Daly was perhaps taken aback by the freshman’s performance.
The year proved Daly has talent, which was never a question. His “aw, shucks” demeanor and outward goofiness is actually a benefit to the series – other than Newgarden and James Hinchcliffe, no driver put himself out there for the fans and promotional aspects more. His Indianapolis 500 banquet speech thanking Christopher Columbus entered legendary status. The way he handled Pocono, representing late teammate Bryan Clauson with the BC Forever signage and Clauson’s No. 88 on his car, was nothing short of admirable. He had a decent rapport with engineer Michael Cannon and the Coyne team. It was a properly good first full season for the young man who screams “’Merica” at every opportunity, and fully deserves a second year.