Last Sunday in the 105th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, Conor Daly finished 13th, but it was one of the best days of his professional racing career, maybe even of his entire life.
He led laps at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, something he hadn’t done in seven previous starts in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” In fact, he led the most laps in the race, 40. This wasn’t a lucky break. This was a product of Daly having a fast race car all month long.
“What an unbelievable feeling,” he said. “We have a lot to be proud of, for sure.”
Aided by a Lap 34 caution for Stefan Wilson’s incident on pit lane, Daly gained track position and drove his No. 47 U.S. Air Force Chevrolet from a 19th starting position to the front.
It was a moment Daly said he will carry with him for the rest of his life. On Lap 50, he chased teammate Rinus VeeKay in the No. 21 Bitcoin Chevrolet down the backstretch. As they approached Turn 3, Daly made a move to the inside for the lead.
The socially distanced crowd of 135,000 spectators – 40 percent of capacity – erupted in cheers that drowned out the announcers on NBC. The crowd was thrilled at the sight of one of its hometown drivers taking the lead. Daly is from Noblesville, an Indianapolis suburb, and lives in Indy.
Daly kept the lead through Lap 70 and led again from Lap 84-102.
“For sure (I’m happy),” he said. “But there’s only one lap that counts. I had so much fun. I watched the video of me taking the lead, and I almost started crying. I heard (the crowd) in the video. This event means a lot to me. I’ll remember that forever.”
Daly relinquished the lead on Lap 102 for a cycle of green flag pit stops. As the pit stops wrapped up, Daly was positioned to continue racing near the front.
But Daly’s signature bad luck, which he insists follows him everywhere he goes, struck in one of the most unpredictable ways.
On Lap 119, Graham Rahal relinquished the lead to pit. Upon returning to the racetrack in Turn 2, the left rear wheel of Rahal’s No. 15 United Rentals Honda came off, sending the driver spinning into the SAFER Barrier.
The tire skated across the racetrack and bounced off the SAFER Barrier. It then hopped down the racetrack and into the racing line of Daly’s silver-and-red car. At 200 mph, there was nothing Daly could do but hit the tire with his front wing and nose cone.
“The reason we weren’t (competing at the end) is cause of that right there,” he said. “This giant tire just flew out of the sky. I had no idea. That’s par for the course for me with a flying tire ruining our race. We just had to work with what we had. Our car started understeering a lot.”
The tire left a black mark on the front wing and nose of his car, but the impact was bigger than that. Daly said his Ed Carpenter Racing team was forced to make rear wing adjustments for the rest of the race as the handling changed drastically. Still, he salvaged a 13th-place finish on the lead lap – the second-best result of his Indy 500 career.
More importantly, Daly feels he proved that when given the right situation, and with a little less bad luck, he can compete for wins in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.
“It was nice to be out front,” he said. “I think we proved we can be up there and racing with those guys.”
Daly is looking to ride the Indianapolis momentum into the next NTT INDYCAR SERIES races at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit doubleheader, the headline races of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear on June 12-13 on Belle Isle in Detroit. Both races can be seen live on NBC.
Daly will hop back into the No. 20 U.S. Air Force Chevrolet driven by team owner Ed Carpenter in oval races. He hasn’t competed at the Detroit street circuit since 2017, but it is the site of his only NTT INDYCAR SERIES podium, a second-place finish in 2016.
Combine the incredible feeling of racing for the lead at the Racing Capital of the World with the optimism of heading to the racetrack where you scored your career-best finish, and Daly likes where he stands.
Now, if he can just get some good luck.