Daly looks to keep rising star shining bright in Lone Star State

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Today's pop quiz: Not including the Indianapolis 500, which Honda-powered driver has led the most laps in the Verizon IndyCar Series this year?

If you need a hint, he's a rookie driving for a small team. If that makes you think the answer is rising U.S. star Conor Daly, driver of the No. 18 Jonathan Byrd's Hospitality Honda for Dale Coyne Racing, you'd be correct.

“It makes you feel like you are doing something right, which is kind of cool,” Daly said about leading races this year.

“There's so much good competition in our series that to be racing with guys who you know are good, you just hope to be put in that category of driver as the year goes on. I am trying to belong and when we go out there and race with guys who have been around for a while, it feels good for me.”

While it might surprise some to learn that Daly is tops in the Honda camp with 33 laps led outside the Indy 500, his peers in the paddock know he has the right stuff to be at the head of the class.

“He's proven he can race with anybody, he's passed TK (Tony Kanaan) on restarts and Helio (Castroneves) on restarts for the lead of races,” said Daly’s good friend and No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda driver, James Hinchcliffe.

“There's a bunch of us who have been trying to help Conor for years now and we are stoked to see him get a full-time ride. We want nothing more than to see him succeed because we know how hard he's worked, we know how good he is and how much he deserves to be here.”

The only Honda driver with more laps led is Andretti Autosport driver Ryan Hunter-Reay, with 55, all but three in this year's 100th Running of the Indy 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

Although Daly has been able to make the most of clever strategies to get to the front in races, he certainly hasn't looked out of place leading the field.

“He was just waiting for an opportunity to show what he can do and it seems like the chemistry is pretty decent at Coyne,” said KVSH Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais, a former Coyne driver himself. “They are a small team a bit like us and that (Honda) package is quite a bit more competitive this year and it's allowing him to show what he can do.”

The reason Daly has needed to find more creative ways to gain ground is due to the series’ extremely competitive nature, making it difficult for a rookie with a less well-funded team to find the pace to start near the front of the grid.

Heading into this weekend’s Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway, Daly’s best start was 13th at April's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

While the results didn't come early, Daly has three top-10 finishes in his past four starts, a sixth in the Angie's List Grand Prix of Indianapolis in May, followed by a second and sixth in the doubleheader Chevrolet Dual in Detroit presented by Quicken Loans.

“It's just taken time for us to gel as a team and we are just improving slowly but surely,” Daly said.

“The engineering team we've got are able to put together setups now that are more attuned to what I like and what they think that I like. It's just a work in progress – this sport is hard and it's not easy –every weekend you just have to try and improve a bit on the last.”

Unfortunately for Daly, he's now behind the eight ball when it comes to the rookie of the year chase after crashing out of the Indianapolis 500, which was won by fellow first-year driver Alexander Rossi.

Rossi's double-points win combined with Daly's 29th-place finish meant Daly went from nine points ahead in the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings to 95 behind his fellow American. The Detroit results helped, but Daly is still 65 points adrift of Rossi going into Texas.

“Obviously Indy was a huge blow – I guess you can either be a big fan or a hater of the double-points system but we literally got the worst of it,” Daly said. 

“There's no point in dwelling on anything in the past because all you can do is control what happens next. It's certainly going to be about staying consistently in the top 10 from now on to have a chance. It's a big gap.”

The good news is Daly has half a season to make up the ground and a double-points 2016 finale at Sonoma Raceway to help him out.

While his stock has risen since the podium for second in the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit race on June 4, Hinchcliffe joked that the young America might see advice become a bit scarce. 

“It might slow down, for certain,” he laughed.

“There's nothing more valuable than laps at this point and making it to the end of these races and seeing how they unfold. That's the real learning and where the real experience comes from. He's doing what he needs to be doing.”


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