Two words describe Conor Daly when it came to his mentality for the last two rounds in the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season – “finish strong.” After Sunday’s INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen presented by Hitachi, the Dale Coyne Racing driver is halfway there.
The talented 24-year-old from Noblesville, Ind., has endured an eventful rookie campaign filled with its share of highs and lows, but his fourth-place finish – and near podium – are certainly reason for optimism.
Daly tops all rookies in laps led (56) and races led (five) this season, with a second-place finish in the opening race of the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit at Belle Isle in June. He has had the No. 18 Jonathan Byrd’s Hospitality Honda in the mix late at the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis, The Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio and Sunday’s Watkins Glen race.
Viewed perhaps as the ultimate underdog racing for the “little team” in Dale Coyne Racing, the second-generation driver has held his own in the Sunoco Rookie of the Year battle against a pair of drivers with Formula One experience: Max Chilton and reigning Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil champion Alexander Rossi.
Daly trails Rossi by 75 points in the rookie standings with only the season finale at Sonoma Raceway remaining. Take out the double-points difference from the Indy 500 when Rossi won and Daly finished 29th, and Daly would actually be 29 points ahead of the Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian driver.
Daly moved the most positions forward of any driver at Watkins Glen, starting 17th and finishing fourth. He had a second career podium finish in sight when he ran out of ethanol near the end of the 60th and last lap on the 3.37-mile permanent road course. Helio Castroneves made the pass for third as Daly coasted across the finish line.
“I really just can’t believe that we ended up fourth,” Daly said. “It was a back-and-forth race with all kinds of stuff going on. But our car was fast, we knew it all weekend. We just had horrible luck.”
Daly, who recovered from a crash in Friday’s opening practice, quickly advanced through the field when the race began and moved into the top 10 by Lap 10. Other than cycling through pit stops, he remained there most of the rest of the race.
He sat 11th after most of the field made stops on Lap 41 and was able to save enough fuel (almost) to reach the end while others had to stop for splashes of Sunoco E85R. It allowed Daly to move into fourth on Lap 58 and he passed good friend James Hinchcliffe – who also ran out of fuel – midway through the last lap for what appeared to be a third-place finish until Daly’s Honda sputtered in the final turn.
“At the end, they said (on the team radio) we were making the right fuel number and I was making up positions and then I was told we could go a little bit quicker,” Daly said. “So one lap we used a bit more fuel and then they came on the radio and said, ‘Code red.’
“If we would’ve saved a little bit more on that one lap, we maybe could have held off Helio. I had no idea where we were – third or fourth or fifth – but at the end of the day, I’ll take fourth.”
Although the son of former F1 and Indy car driver Derek Daly trails Rossi by 75 points in the standings, he still plans on throwing caution to the wind and getting everything that remains on the table.
“It’s going to be tough, but the fact that Sonoma (pays) double points helps,” Daly said. “You know, Rossi winning the (Indianapolis) 500 was huge, especially since there were 33 cars entered instead of 22. So even if I won Sonoma and he finished last, it would be a different point total.
“That makes it tough, but you might as well go for it, right?”
The GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma weekend runs from Sept. 16-18. NBCSN will blanket the weekend with live coverage of the second practice session on Sept. 16 (5 p.m. ET), Verizon P1 Award qualifying on Sept. 17 (6 p.m. ET) and the 85-lap race from Sonoma Raceway in Northern California beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET Sept. 18.