Photo: Walter G. Arce/ASP, Inc.

Conor Daly’s ‘Fun’ Racing Season Comes Down to Indy 500

By Luis Torres, Staff Writer

“I’ve just had fun so far this year, and it hasn’t been in IndyCar, but now this year really could change quite a lot after this race,” Conor Daly said of his 2019 motorsports season.

It was a roller coaster ride for the 27-year-old last year as he only ran four NTT IndyCar Series races, including the Indianapolis 500, where he finished a lap down in 21st for Dale Coyne Racing.

Daly almost wouldn’t have had the opportunity of even running the 500 at all as he was one of the drivers, scratching and clawing on Bump Day last year. When the stressful dust settled, Daly was the last driver who made the cut and started 33rd, while Daly’s teammate Pippa Mann and ARROW Schmidt Peterson’s James Hinchcliffe failed to qualify.

Fast forward to this year’s edition of “The Month of May” and the struggle of making the 500 was the least of Daly’s concerns as he’s been enjoying the 2019 campaign by competing and winning in different sports car disciplines. But the goal still remains, he wants to become a full-time driver in the series once again.

“What happened, happened. Now we’re here,” Daly said about surviving Bump Day last year. “I’ve had such a fun year so far, winning Lamborghini races and being a part of that team. Winning some smaller sports car races with some of my longtime supporters has been a good time.

“We want to make sure that happens and I want to be doing more IndyCar races no matter what. Obviously, after this race, you really start working on 2020 already and I really want to be a full-time IndyCar driver. Not sure how we’re going to do it, but we’re certainly going to put every effort towards it.”

The transition from driving for Coyne to Andretti Autosport has also boosted Daly’s confidence, and it shows. Rather than worrying about the Last Row Shootout, Daly qualified 11th last Saturday, two spots shy of making the Firestone Fast Nine and will start in the middle of Row 4 after setting a four-lap average speed of 228.617 mph.

Going into Sunday’s 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, Daly is in an excellent position of being competitive in the No. 25 U.S. Air Force Honda, but will make the right moves when it’s warranted.

“I’m at a totally different spot. It feels great. I’ve had a lot of fun just being there. I just know that we’re only looking forward,” said Daly. “We’re not worried about moving backwards. We’re actually thinking about how to win this race. That’s the stuff we’re considering. We’re looking at our pit stops like hey, ‘If we need to trim out for the last stint and try to win, we need to practice that.’ I was like, ‘Yes, that would be great.’ It’s a totally different position and it’s a lot of fun to be part of.”

As it pertains to the Universal Aero Kit, Daly felt the car very different than a year ago, and logging down laps without weather playing a factor, which Sunday’s race could face a threat of rain, has been beneficial.

“It’s not even felt like my car from last year,” Daly explained. “I’m glad that I have that experience last year to at least get sort of in the game, but this has been an entirely new game. It’s been nice to just have the whole week of practice and not a lot of rain to get used to it and now, here we are.”

Once the 200-lap journey commences however, he added that track position will play an even bigger role than ever before, but difficult to decide when’s appropriate to move up the leaderboard.

“It’s tough because every position is very important. I do see myself wanting to go for every small gap because track position is key this year, but you also have to be patient,” said Daly. “You rather not get in trouble with 90 to go and maybe one position back. The thing is, if you do get that position, you might be one closer to having a shot at the win. It’s tough to judge, but realistically I think I’ve learned the patience to be ready to take advantage when I need to and not when I don’t.”

Last year, Daly only had two other Coyne teammates (veteran Sebastien Bourdais and rookie Zachary Claman DeMelo) to rely on resources, but he has all the major resources he can imagine as he has four other Andretti Autosport teammates (Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi and Zach Veach) and their affiliate, Harding Steinbrenner Racing (Colton Herta).

Knowing this, Daly has relished the opportunity of being with a top-tier team that’s won multiple 500s this decade, notably Hunter-Reay (2014) and Rossi (2016), and has gotten tremendous data as a result. Outside of his teammates, Daly also mentioned to keep an eye on Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves, who’s looking to join an elite company of winning four Indy 500s.

“I like the winning mentality,” said Daly. “I like being able to go after it and having my teammates right with me too is really cool because that’s a group of people to be around. Marco obviously knows how to do this race, Alex knows what to do and Helio is a good of a wild card—but you know he’s good here, but he’s super aggressive on track—so I’m just curious to see how it plays out but I’m glad to have some of my teammates right with me.

“Even having Colton’s data as well. Colton has obviously done a really good job this year and he’s been really fast. To have all that is a level of resources that I’ve never had before. You just got to try and learn from and get better at every session.”

All 33 drivers dream of achieving their lifelong dream of winning the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” Daly’s mindset is different as he’s locked on trusting the process instead of solely thinking about winning the race. Even if he wins in the one-off race with Andretti, there’s no guarantee what his IndyCar future holds.

“It’s fun. We try not to think about much of the result, just the process,” Daly said about winning Indy. “If we got the car to do it, we’ll certainly going to give it our best shot.

“If you look at the prize money wise, it’s really only enough to do two more races, but I think it doesn’t matter. If you win or finish second, that’s solid no matter what you’re looking at. Realistically, when it comes down to it next year, someone still has to step up and be a part of it. Especially, if I want to be with a team like Andretti, but who knows. We’ll see.”

Coverage of the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge begins at 11:00 am EST Sunday on NBC.

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From the Pacific Northwest, Luis is a University of Idaho graduate with a Bachelor's degree in Broadcasting and Digital Media and a three-time National Motorsports Press Association award winner in photography. Ever since watching the 2003 Daytona 500, being involved in auto racing is all he's ever dreamed of doing. Over the years, Luis has focused on writing, video and photography with ambitions of having his work recognized.