When you drive for one of the underfunded teams on any circuit, the main goal is to finish each race weekend with an undamaged car. A good finish is wanted, but typically unexpected. They come from time to time, but can often be fleeting.
That considered, Conor Daly’s weekend in Detroit was a special one for the rookie and his Dale Coyne Racing team.
Daly, a homegrown prospect from Noblesville, IN, has impressed in the first eight events of his rookie season after crawling his way to IndyCar over the last few years. Driving for the underfunded DCR team, expectations were low for the 24-year-old going into the season, but he’s found a way to be a constant presence at the front of the field.
It all began in the season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, where Daly held the lead and contended for a podium courtesy of an off-sequence pit strategy before pit road issues and a crash relegated him to a 13th-place finish.
Daly popped up again going into the Month of May, snatching the lead in the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis and again contending for a podium until his car began to lose power down the stretch, Daly ended that day in sixth, offering a good story and showing what he’s capable of given the right opportunity.
Daly’s fortune didn’t fare as well in the Indianapolis 500 – a mid-race crash with Mikhail Aleshin forced him into his first DNF and a 29th-place result – but Daly returned to the spot light in a big way on the lone double-header in Belle Isle Park.
Daly’s highlight moment came on Saturday – an improbable second-place finish to give him his first podium behind Sebastien Bourdais. While that result may be the one that sticks with Daly and his No. 18 DCR team in the future, the team wrapped up a dream weekend with a sixth-place finish that shot Daly into the top 15 in the series points standings.
“Once again, we had a pretty impressive charge up from the back of the field; not the first time this year I’ve said that,” said Daly. “Our Honda was a really good race car. When you have a car that’s competitive, it’s really fun. I just hate that we had to start at the back. [Daly was penalized for causing a yellow flag in qualifying, losing his fifth-fastest time as a result and starting 21st]. But all-in-all, it was a great weekend with a second yesterday. We have a nice bit of momentum going into [next week’s race] Texas.”
The rookie doesn’t have the international appeal of fellow rookies and former Formula One drivers Max Chilton and Alexander Rossi, and his season will likely never live up to Rossi’s improbable Indianapolis 500 victory, but as the season goes on, Daly’s young career continues to blossom in an incredible way.
Daly’s continually strong performances are becoming more expectation than surprise, even as Honda has endured remnants of 2015 struggles.
Daly is one of only six Honda drivers to finish a race on the podium through the halfway point of the IndyCar season. The rookie sits sixth in laps led on the season, trailing only Ryan Hunter-Reay on the Honda side.
An unfortunate crash in the double-points Indy 500 masks Daly’s consistency. Outside of the Indy crash, Daly has only two finished outside of the top 15, with three top 10s, all coming in the last four races.
It seems improbable that an Indy 500 victor could be beaten in the Rookie of the Year battle, but if Daly can continue to run with this level of consistency, Rossi could have his hands full come August.
Daly and DCR haven’t yet reached their end goal – a trip to victory lane is equal parts agonizingly close and far away – but their season has been every bit the Cinderella story through the first half of 2016. If the shoe continues to fit through the second half of the year, a victory isn’t beyond the realm of possibility for Honda’s underdog team.