There were 36 lead changes in the 105th Indy 500, but arguably none of them were met with more emotion than when Conor Daly took over the top spot on Lap 50 – and he’s expecting his Indianapolis momentum to carry him through the Detroit GP at the Raceway at Belle Isle Park this Saturday (2 p.m. ET, NBC) and Sunday (12 p.m. ET, NBC).
“I’ve been to the Indy 500 before,” Daly said in a Zoom press conference ahead of the Detroit GP. “I’ve cheered for moments like that before where, like, you just – I don’t know, it’s electrifying.”
Trying to find the words to express his emotions was like trying to catch lightning in a bottle.
Daly led the Indy 500 for 40 laps, including at the halfway mark, but that is not where his greatest charge was absorbed. It came two weeks previous in the GMR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course.
It seems disingenuous to think that a last-place finish in that event would be the thing that gives him the greatest confidence entering Detroit. But drivers know the capabilities of their car isn’t always reflected in the box score.
Daly qualified sixth for the GMR Grand Prix and believed his car was just as strong as that of teammate Rinus VeeKay, who went on to win his first IndyCar race. He never had a chance to find out if that was true after getting pushed off course in Turn 1 of Lap 1. His car stalled in that incident.
After losing several laps, Daly returned to action before retiring with crash damage on Lap 50.
— IndyCar on NBC (@IndyCaronNBC) May 15, 2021
The debate has raged for decades. Is momentum a real force for race car drivers? It is for Daly.
And in a weekend with a doubleheader on a tough track, every little boost is needed.
“Yes, mentally; I think physically, yeah, because we just did a lot of time in the car,” Daly said. “Our bodies are ready for this long weekend.
“But realistically what I look forward to most is the progress we made at the Indy GP. That’s what I’m most excited about. … We made a lot of progress there. I’m excited to see if we can continue that for another good run at Detroit.”
If Daly struggled in the Indy 500, that might have stalled his momentum. Crossing under the checkers 13th in a see-saw race, he scored his first top-15 of the season, however, and it wasn’t until well afterward that the electricity of the crowd impacted him.
“It was nice,” Daly replied when asked about the eruption of noise when he took the lead; in fact, he shed a tear while watching the replay. “But honestly the coolest thing was seeing all the Internet stuff afterwards. Actually. just last night for some reason I hadn’t gone through like the posts that I’d been tagged in on Instagram. I started going through them all. There were a ton of videos from race day. It’s just wild to see.
“You don’t appreciate it at the time. You’re in the car, you’re doing the business, you’re working. It was the coolest thing ever to see that video.”
— Conor Daly (@ConorDaly22) May 30, 2021
But still, the Lap 1 crash in the GMR Grand Prix has to lurk in the back of his mind.
Indianapolis has wide run off areas that can be used as an escape route. The same thing is not true on a narrow, bumpy street course that hasn’t seen action in two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think it’s just the nature of the track honestly,” Daly said. “I love street courses. Always have in the past in my career. I’m just happy to get back there.”
Under normal circumstances, qualifying on Row 3 for a street or road course race should be good enough to keep a driver out of trouble. He will not dwell on the incident that ruined his GMR Grand Prix. Rather, Daly will stay focused on getting at least as strong a start to the Detroit GP.
Daly’s last-place finish in the latest road race dropped him outside the top 20 in points. His top-15 on the oval, worth 37 points, allowed Daly to claw back to 19th and put him contention for a much better ranking after the Detroit GP.
Competition is the driving force for racers – and having another driver in site provides focus. Daly is four points behind his closest competitor Sebastien Bourdais. He is only 16 away from cracking the top 15.
“The only pressure is just on yourself to continue to fine tune everything. I think we know that we’ve got some good stuff right now. I think there’s no pressure. You’re just happy, right? You know, we’re going to be able to do the job.
“Even Scott Dixon will show up to a race weekend and have … to put in a lot of work to get either a race win or get to the front.
“It’s the same on us.”