FORT WORTH, Texas – Conor Daly believes his latest audition in the NTT IndyCar Series went well. Whether he gets that all-important callback for an encore performance remains to be seen.
The 27-year-old racer drove for his sixth INDYCAR team Saturday night when he finished 11th for Carlin in the DXC Technology 600 at Texas Motor Speedway. Daly hopped into the No. 59 Gallagher Carlin Chevrolet and, despite limited track time with the team before the race, put in a solid performance that nearly netted a top-10 result.
“I’m really, really happy with it, to be honest,” Daly said of the effort.
So, too, was Trevor Carlin. The team principal hand-picked Daly two days before the start of Texas on-track activities to replace Max Chilton, who has opted not to compete on the remaining NTT IndyCar Series ovals this season. Daly responded by equaling the team's best showing this season, when Patricio O'Ward finished 11th the week before on Detroit's Belle Isle.
“I’m really pleased with Conor’s performance last weekend at Texas,” Carlin said. “It’s difficult for a driver and a team to come together on such short notice and put together a strong result, but Conor and the team really stepped up and did just that.”
Starting from 19th position, Daly advanced three spots in the opening stint before making his first pit stop on Lap 59 of 248. It was then that he dropped off the lead lap, a situation from which he couldn’t recover with the first 134 laps all run in green-flag conditions.
“If we hadn’t lost a lap early, we probably could’ve been in a decent fight there,” Daly said. “Our first stint was pretty tough and it went green for so long, it was really difficult.”
Daly was hindered in acclimating to the team – and getting the setup tuned to his liking – by a lack of track time. Thursday night’s first practiced, scheduled for two hours, was limited to about 40 minutes by rain. That left only a Friday afternoon practice, run in midday heat when teams also needed to work on qualifying setups.
Daly finished 10th in an Andretti Autosport entry at last month’s Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, his only 2019 series race prior to Texas. Since making his NTT IndyCar Series debut at the 2013 Indy 500, he’s had two full-season rides (with Dale Coyne Racing in 2016 and AJ Foyt Racing in 2017), but has spent much of his time as a one-off or substitute driver – including the latest ride with Carlin.
Daly admitted the Carlin car felt “very, very different to what I’ve been driving” initially, but he praised the crew for listening to his feedback and moving in a direction to make the setup more suitable to his style.
“Carlin has a really good philosophy about what they want to get out of the car,” he said, “but for me, I need something a little bit different. I need to feel the right rear tire as soon as I turn the wheel, and there was not a lot of that. We had an hour to try and make some changes, and we did, but we could’ve used another day of working on it.
“But for them to have faith in what I was saying to make the changes to go that direction is super important. A lot of teams, if they have a certain way of doing things, it’s hard to really convince them to go a (different) way. These guys really believed in me and that was really nice for them to actually accept the input that I was giving.”
As the race progressed, Daly steadily moved up the scoring pylon. By Lap 185, he was running 11th and the top car not on the lead lap. Two laps later, Daly made what was initially thought to be the last of three pit stops for the night.
That changed when Daly’s good friend James Hinchcliffe crashed on Lap 219 to bring out a yellow flag and bunch the field behind the pace car. Carlin and Daly opted to stop for fresh Firestone tires and surrender track position to Will Power and Marco Andretti, who were also a lap down but stayed out.
“We had discussed earlier that if we had a chance to pit for fresh tires, we were going to do it,” Daly said. “The only problem was there were a lot of cars that were two laps down that I had to get past (after pitting), before I got to Marco and Power.
“If you have to spend your time passing three cars that are already two laps down, that’s hard. We did that and I got to Marco and Power, but we didn’t have enough time to pass those guys.”
It’s not like he didn’t try. Daly clocked his fastest lap of the race nine laps from the end, but he couldn’t catch Andretti or Power to secure a second top-10 result this season. Team principal Carlin believed it could have been a strong night for both entries since teammate Charlie Kimball was running on the lead lap in 12th place when a mechanical issue ended the No. 23 Fiasp Carlin Chevy’s race after 86 laps.
“Conor just put his head down and worked his way up the field to be knocking on the door of a top-10 finish,” Carlin said. “If we hadn’t had the mechanical issues with Charlie, I think we could easily have had both Carlin cars toward the front.
“Texas is a difficult track to master, especially with such little track time, but I think (Daly) coming away with an 11th-place finish from where we started the weekend was a major positive for us, and I’m really proud of how everything came together.”
Whether that means Daly is in Carlin’s plans for the rest of the season is uncertain. The driver believes he presented his case for a return quite well.
“I do feel like it was a good weekend,” Daly said. “I think the team was happy. I obviously don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but I feel like I did my job. That’s all you can do, and we’ll see what happens from there.”
The next NTT IndyCar Series race is the REV Group Grand Prix at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. Live coverage starts at noon ET Sunday, June 23 on NBC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.