Conor Daly thought he had broken through as a Verizon IndyCar Series rookie.
But six weeks removed from a 2016 season in which he had five top-six finishes including his first podium for Dale Coyne Racing, the 24-year-old driver from Noblesville, Ind., is uncertain about his future.
“I don’t really know yet,” he said. “I’m just waiting. I don’t really know what the decision-making process is going to be like.
“Hope is not a strategy. You’ve got to try to use everything you can, use your phone, your contacts. I’ve talked to every team with an open seat. That’s what you have to do to try to make things work.”
What Daly keeps hearing is he must come up with sponsorship to secure a fulltime ride in 2017. The three-time Indianapolis 500 qualifier finished 18th in points in his first full season. He thought, based on his strongest runs that included a second-place finish in the first Chevrolet Dual in Detroit and 56 laps led in five races, it would enhance his future prospects.
“The theory of once you’re in, you’re in, it’s what I’ve seen,” he said. “It’s worked with a lot of guys. Once guys have gotten their chance, people want to have you around. I’m trying to do that. I would hope this year has sort of granted me enough.
“I just try to compare it to other rookies. What was Josef Newgarden like in his first year? What was Carlos Munoz like in his first year? What was Jack Hawksworth like? I think it was a good year for us. I just want to be able to use that and hopefully sign another deal for at least more than a year. Whatever deal I do next, I would like to do more than a year.
“The most important thing is making a mark, whether that’s leading races, whether that’s finishing every race. Sometimes it’s just about keeping the equipment underneath you and doing the best with what you can. You never know what people will pick up on. It’s all kinds of different things.”
Newgarden, a 25-year-old American who just signed with Team Penske, finished 25th in points without a top-10 run in his 2012 series debut with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. He’s since won three races and finished a career-best fourth in the points this past season for Ed Carpenter Racing.
Munoz, a 24-year-old Colombian, finished second in the 2013 Indianapolis 500, his series debut for Andretti Autosport. He didn’t land a full-time ride with Andretti until 2014, when he finished eighth in the points. Munoz is currently a free agent after finishing 10th in the points.
Coyne recently signed four-time Indy car champion Sebastien Bourdais for next season and intends to run one other fulltime car. The team owner acknowledged Daly is an option, that he hoped to bring him back, but sponsorship is needed.
“He’s done good,” Coyne said of Daly during the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma weekend in September. “We hoped to be after rookie of the year honors, but when (Alexander) Rossi doubled up those points at Indianapolis, that became a pretty tough paddle or otherwise we’d be right in there. We put (Daly) up front a couple of times strategy-wise, but he stayed there when he got there, so that looked really good with him.
“I think we’ve still got a lot to learn and he does, too, but if you look at the right situations, he’s led a lot of laps this year. It’s not like we put him up there and he led one or two laps. He led several laps. That proves he can do the job.”
Until a contract is signed, though, Daly is left to wonder what’s next.
“I hope that it does say enough, for sure, about what the future could hold,” he said of his 2016 season. “I’m always hungry for more, but when we look back at it, Grand Prix of Indianapolis sixth, Detroit second and sixth, Road America should have been top five despite a failure, we led Mid-Ohio and finished sixth, we finished fourth at Watkins Glen. We’ve been at the front of a lot of races. Had we not got hit at St. Pete, we probably would have gotten top six there, too.
“I think we can be really happy with it. When you take away the Indy 500, we’d be like 11th in points. The double points really killed us. Without a doubt, we can be happy, for sure. I’m happy but that doesn’t mean I don’t want more. We’re constantly trying to improve.”
Daly would prefer to stay with Coyne, but he has also been mentioned for one of the seats at AJ Foyt Racing. Daly made his Verizon IndyCar Series debut with the Foyt outfit at the 2013 Indianapolis 500.
“I’d like to stay here (with Coyne) because we’ve built a good relationship,” Daly said. “We’ll just have to see.”
Daly even went so far as to follow the lead of his friend Newgarden, who spent the week after the season finale in Hawaii before signing with Penske. Daly traveled to Hawaii last week, hoping to generate some of the same mojo.
After @josefnewgarden got back from Hawaii he got a drive with Penske so I decided to vacation here as well. #OffSeasonProblems pic.twitter.com/rdxmzMDEAt