Having changed teams so many times this NTT IndyCar Series season, Conor Daly wouldn’t be blamed if he had to be reminded which one he was driving for on a given weekend.
Daly returns with Andretti Autosport for the Sept. 22 season finale, the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. It will be Daly’s seventh race with three teams this season and his second stint with Andretti Autosport, the other race being a career-best 10th-place finish in the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.
Daly drove for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in the most recent race, the Grand Prix of Portland at Portland International Raceway, but was unfortunately taken out in a first-lap, first-turn crash. He also made four starts for Carlin, which included a season-best sixth place at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway.
“If you would have asked me in February, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Daly said of making seven starts this season. “But here we are and I’ve been happy to fulfill the roles that Carlin, SPM and Andretti needed me for, and obviously U.S. Air Force wanted to expand their (sponsorship) program, which is awesome. That’s why we’re finishing our season at Laguna Seca. All good things. Happy to be that guy and thankfully when we’ve gotten in the car, it’s gone well. We had two 11th-place finishes that potentially could have been much higher had we just got lucky on a couple yellow scenarios. Same thing at Iowa, we finished 13th but realistically we were in a much better spot.
“It’s interesting to see how these races go, but for a while there our worst finish was 13th and we were pretty much in the top 10 at every race we’ve done, which is awesome, until obviously getting taken out at Portland.”
Daly and SPM teammate James Hinchcliffe were both knocked out when Graham Rahal bumped into Andretti Autosport’s Zach Veach to start the melee. Rahal and Veach were also done.
But Daly says nothing compares to having a car fail on a parade lap before the Indianapolis 500, which happened to him while driving for SPM in 2015. An exhaust failure parked his car before the green flag.
“It doesn’t get any worse than that,” he said.
The experience of racing full time in 2016 and 2017 has helped him adapt. He almost won at Detroit in 2016, finishing a career-best second for Dale Coyne Racing.
“To get the best out of yourself as a driver these days, all these full-time guys are getting simulator days, test days, full-on preparation. And I’m just getting calls randomly to jump in cars, no simulator days, no testing, which is difficult,” Daly said. “But it is what it is. I feel like I’ve made the most of the opportunities. That’s all you can do, really just try to make the most of what you’ve got and hopefully people can see that and we can have a fair shot at a ride next year.”
SPM co-owner Sam Schmidt first employed Daly in Firestone Indy Lights in 2011 and is sold on the driver being worthy of a regular ride.
“He deserves to be in the series full time, whether it’s with us or anybody else,” Schmidt said after Daly qualified ninth at Portland despite being a last-minute replacement for Marcus Ericsson. “I hope they can find a spot for him. Any time we’ve had a job opening, he’s been in the top five (of consideration), no doubt. Who knows, we have a seat available, so we’ll see.”
Schmidt says Daly has benefited from the experience of driving for different teams. He pointed out that Daly had never driven at Portland or had time in a simulator, yet was strong in practice and qualifying.
“There’s certain value in that, too,” he said. “You work with different engineers, you work with different cars, you work with different setups and you’ve got to be adaptable. Anybody would see value in that, especially if they’ve got a car that’s not so great right now and they need to develop it.”
Daly entered the season knowing he was going to have at least one ride for the most important race in driving for Andretti Autosport at the Indy 500. He was ecstatic about having his best car at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He qualified 11th and thought he could have finished better than 10th.
“More so than ever, this is really what I want to do,” Daly said. “It’s the most that I’ve ever wanted to be in the sport. Indy this year totally fired up my love for the sport and everything. I feel like I’m in a good spot. I have to do the best I can in this last race.
“Honestly, this year has been super positive. I’ve been nothing but happy. All of these races that I’ve done have been an addition to what I thought I was going to do. I’ve been super happy. There hasn’t been much to be really upset about. There’s a couple of things that were frustrating. The finish at Indy was really frustrating for me personally and a couple other things that were bad luck, but realistically I’ve done a lot in my own control to make sure I’ve made the most of the opportunities.”
He won’t say he deserves a full-time ride. That’s for a team to decide.
“I think we’ve done our job,” Daly said. “I’ve got a lot of experience now and I’ve matured quite a lot. That’s a word that I like to use now. Maturity is super important in INDYCAR obviously.
“I’m thankful to still be driving Indy cars. Obviously I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but we have one race left to try to finish off the season strong.”
INDYCAR concludes its 17-race season with the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on Sunday, Sept. 22. Television coverage will begin on NBC at 2:30 p.m. ET (11:30 a.m. PT local) with the green flag scheduled for 3:15 p.m. (12:15 p.m. local). Live radio broadcasts will be available on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network and SiriusXM Satellite Radio (XM 205, Sirius 98, Internet/App 970).