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Conor Daly happy with Toronto performance, eager for more IndyCar opportunities

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It’s never easy getting a last-minute call-up to run a Verizon IndyCar Series event. It’s even harder when it’s with a single-car team. It’s harder still when said team is brand new to IndyCar and hasn’t raced at the venue where you’re slated to be racing for them.

And that’s the exact scenario that Conor Daly faced at the Honda Indy Toronto. Daly, who last raced in the Indianapolis 500 in a joint effort with Dale Coyne Racing and Thom Burns Racing, was drafted into Harding Racing last Wednesday to fill in for Gabby Chaves, with the team starting to evaluate drivers ahead of a possible two-car effort next year.

Indeed, Harding is a brand new IndyCar team – 2018 is its first full season after it competed in three races in 2017 – and had never raced on the streets of Toronto before.

As such, the challenge ahead of Daly was always going to be an immense one. But, he wasn’t fazed.

“Driving around tracks is better than sitting around them. I really enjoy that a lot,” Daly quipped in a press conference last Friday in Toronto.

And Daly has jumped into a seat at the last minute before. He subbed with Dale Coyne Racing at the 2015 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach after Rocky Moran Jr., entered in a one-off effort for Coyne that weekend, was injured in practice.

Daly also subbed for James Hinchcliffe in 2015 – at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit and at Toronto – so he isn’t intimidated by those circumstances.

“I’ve been in these situations before. I’ve jumped into multiple different cars last minute, and I’m used to getting into these things pretty quickly,” he explained. “But for me I’ve known a lot of these guys since I was an infant. I’ve been in this paddock for a very long time, so I’m very familiar with a lot of the guys, so it’s a great group of people.”

He also appreciated the atmosphere within the Harding outfit, emphasizing ahead of that they weren’t putting undo pressure on themselves or him.

“I really like the outlook on what we’re trying to do here. I think it’s very reasonable,” he said of the Harding effort. “I think it’s very — I like the place that we’re in because I think everyone (entered the weekend) just trying to enjoy the weekend and accept everything that we’re going to throw at the crew, whether it’s a lot of setup changes or whether it’s a lot of different things we can do with the gears, different things we can do with the car just to try and make it go as fast as it can possibly go, and that’s in the end what we all want to have happen.”

Yet, despite the enormous challenge in front of them, Daly and the Harding group enjoyed a highly successful weekend. Daly took advantage of tricky conditions in qualifying – a brief rain shower hit his group in Round 1 – to advance to Round 2, and he eventually qualified a solid 12th.

And the race also went smoothly. Daly avoided the usual Toronto carnage to run a clean race that saw him finish 13th, a solid effort that reflects well upon him and Harding.

“I just want to thank Harding Racing and Chevy for this opportunity, it’s so nice to be back in a car,” a humble Daly said post-race.

While he noted that there are improvements to be made, and he had to battle with traffic at times, he ultimately feels like they made great progress.

“There’s something about this car that we need to sort out mechanically on heavy fuel loads, the car was really beating me up. I think we had good race pace. I got shoved into the wall a few times, which I didn’t really like, but it is what it is. I could have used a bit more cooperation from (Sebastien Bourdais), as he was a few laps down. But anyway, I’m just so thankful to be back out here and we made a lot of progress technically this weekend, so hopefully that helps the team in the future.”

As of now, Daly has not more races scheduled for 2018 and is chomping at the bit get back into IndyCar full-time. Yet, despite obstacles in front him, Daly is confident in his abilities and believes he has more than shown his mettle as an IndyCar driver.

“I know what I can do. I know there’s a lot of people that still do have faith in me. I think there’s a lot of people in these teams that have seen what I can do, seen what I have done in certain situations. We’ve had a rocky road for sure over the last four years. But I do feel like I have delivered at the level that is needed to compete in the IndyCar Series, and I’ve been super thankful to have these chances to do that.”

Daly tested with Harding at Mid-Ohio earlier this week, and a confirmation about whether Chaves, Daly, or another driver will compete with Harding in next week’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (July 29, NBCSN) is forthcoming.

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Max Verstappen shows speed in Austria; Lewis Hamilton lacking pace

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SPIELBERG, Austria — Red Bull driver Max Verstappen posted the fastest time Friday, and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton lacked pace in the second practice session for the Styrian Grand Prix.

Verstappen was 0.043 seconds quicker than Valtteri Bottas – Hamilton’s teammate at Mercedes – and 0.217 ahead of Racing Point driver Sergio Perez.

“The car already feels better than last week, the balance is a lot nicer and we have made a good step,” said Verstappen, who did not finish last Sunday’s season-opening Austrian GP after starting from second.

“It is too early to say how we are looking against Mercedes, but we are quite happy. We have tried a few different directions to understand the car a bit more and we are heading the right way.”

Hamilton was only sixth fastest, about 0.7 seconds slower than Verstappen. Hamilton spent a chunk of time in the garage while his team worked on his car.

“It was quite far off, so there’s a lot of work to do in the background to figure it out,” he said. “Others out there are quick and Valtteri’s obviously got good pace.”

Despite adding a new front wing to its car, struggling Ferrari had a dismal afternoon.

Charles Leclerc was only ninth quickest and 1 second slower than Verstappen, while teammate Sebastian Vettel lagged about 2 seconds behind Verstappen in 16th.

Daniel Ricciardo lost control of his Renault car early into the second session, swerving left off the track and thudding backward into a protective tire wall. He climbed out unharmed, other than a slight limp, but the left rear tire was mangled and the car was lifted off the track by a crane.

Alexander Albon spun twice, the Red Bull driver’s second spin taking him right off the track and into gravel.

Earlier, Perez was fastest in the first practice ahead of Verstappen and Bottas, with Hamilton fourth quickest and Vettel only 10th in sunny conditions.

That session was briefly interrupted when Nicholas Latifi’s Williams car pulled over to the side with a gearbox issue.

The incident brought out yellow flags, forcing drivers to slow down. But McLaren driver Lando Norris overtook Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri and got a three-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race.

Norris, 20, finished third at the Austrian GP last weekend, becoming the youngest British driver in F1 history to get on the podium and third youngest in F1.

The upcoming race is changing names from last week but is at the same track. It is surrounded by the Styrian mountains.

A third and final practice will be held on Saturday morning before qualifying in the afternoon, with heavy rain and storms in the forecast.

If third practice and qualifying are washed out, drivers take their grid positions from where they placed in second practice.

“It would definitely suck if we didn’t get to qualify,” said Hamilton, who started fifth and finished fourth last weekend. “It would make it challenging.”

However, qualifying also could be moved to Sunday morning.

“I don’t expect to be on pole position with this (practice) lap,” Verstappen said.