Conor Daly definitely raised a few eyebrows Saturday.
Nobody would be blamed if they didn’t notice the 24-year-old rookie before, until he sped ahead of three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves to take the lead in the third Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis.
Conor Daly? Really?
Daly had started the race 22nd, Castroneves 13th. On a road course, where passing can be so difficult, these distant starting positions usually suggest it’s going to be a long day. But both caught a huge break as the caution flag came out after they had pitted midway through the race. The leaders weren’t allowed to pit until two laps later.
On the Lap 46 restart, Daly’s No. 18 Jonathan Byrd’s Hospitality Honda passed Castroneves’ No. 3 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet in the first turn. Then Daly pulled away. He gradually built a 3.37-second lead.
The local kid from nearby Noblesville, Indiana, whose one and only top-10 finish in 10 Verizon IndyCar Series starts was a sixth place 11 months ago in Detroit, led the race for 14 laps.
“I went through overtakes like a kid unwrapping gifts at Christmas,” Daly later tweeted, “but to lead a whole stint @IMS what a feeling.”
Each driver had 10 push-to-pass overtakes during the race.
“When Graham (Rahal) got around me (late), I had no more overtakes left,” Daly said. “I was really helpless and our rear tires were going away and Charlie (Kimball) got a good run on us. … We just lost the tires at the end.
“But it was awesome to lead laps at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”
Rahal came from 24th starting position in the 25-car field. His No. 15 Steak ’n Shake Honda had been sent to the back after failing post-qualifying tech inspection.
The Rahal Letterman Lanigan with Theodore Racing entry finished fourth. Daly faltered late to finish sixth, tying his best previous series finish. Rahal, Daly and Castroneves each admitted they exceeded their own pre-race expectations.
“If you were to tell me at the beginning of the race, I’ll finish second place,” Castroneves said, shaking his head, “No, I need a lot of luck.”
Also taking some of the sting out of being runner-up was the fact that Castroneves’ Team Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud prevailed for a third consecutive series race and for the second time in the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis.
Nobody in the field made up more spots from the start than Rahal (20) and Daly (16).
“These are the days that build character,” Rahal said. “Our backs were up against the all for sure. To come out and have a result like that is pretty awesome. Twenty-fourth to fourth is better than I expected today.
“With the cold I’ve got, I’m going to sleep well tonight. This one took it all out of me.”
Daly feared his day was done early. He thought Mikhail Aleshin “punted” him back in turn seven, thus deserving a penalty that wasn’t called.
“Right there, I thought that ruined our race,” Daly said.
But then came the pit stop at a most fortuitous time.
“Thankfully, we made the lucky call to get into the pits right before the yellow,” he said. “And then were able to show the speed of our car. The car is good. We have a good car. It was nice to be able to take the lead and lead the whole stint. I think we have led the most laps for any Honda this year.”
Daly is correct. He also ran out front for 15 laps in March’s season opener at St. Petersburg, Florida.
“It was great, man,” he said of leading laps once again.
“I would have loved to have hung onto the top three; but sixth was better than we expected. Sixth was way better than we expected. It feels lovely.”