NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Conor Daly on Returning to NASCAR Trucks, Looking Ahead to 2021 IndyCar Season

If you were watching Friday (March 5) night’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, you might’ve seen Conor Daly driving the No. 44 for Niece Motorsports. Perhaps you remember him from making his truck debut in Sin City last fall, his Xfinity Series appearance at Road America in 2018 or, most likely, from his long tenure in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Daly’s return lasted just 68 laps before his No. 44 Niece Motorsports Chevrolet slammed the wall in turn 2 and caught on fire. He emerged under his own power, but it wasn’t the follow-up that he wanted to a top-20 effort in his Sin City debut last year. That race featured Daly racing alongside Travis Pastrana, where the two had a friendly bet that stemmed from their time competing together on iRacing in the LCQ League.

The 29-year-old Indiana native has raced nearly everything under the sun: alongside his IndyCar career and appearances in NASCAR’s second and third divisions, Daly has spent time in Indy Lights, GP2, GP3, sports car racing and even tried his hand at last year’s Chili Bowl Nationals. He also says that while he doesn’t have any other truck starts planned for 2021 and IndyCar is his focus, he’d love to come back for a road course or an event with more practice time.

Daly spoke with Frontstretch about his diverse motorsports career and what he’s learned from his time in NASCAR.

Adam Cheek, Frontstretch: First of all, you tweeted about having to “rearrange a few things on your upper right side” after your crash Friday night. What did that wreck do to you?

Conor Daly: My right collarbone was very swollen and my SC [sternoclavicular] joint was out of place, so [we] just basically had to maneuver that back into operational area. Nothing big, just easy stuff to fix, which is nice. I mean, it’s not nice, but it’s easy to fix.

…[It was] just the air taken off the right rear of the car. …It’s just something I’m not used to [with] no practice. I’ve only been in a race situation once and it was a lot less side-by-side [racing] because it was a lot hotter. So yeah, just a different situation for me, different environment and the team kept telling me, “there’s nothing you could have done about that because there’s no way you would have been in that scenario before.” …That was definitely what happened, which is a shame.

Cheek: This was, of course, a return to the truck series for you after Vegas last fall. How did the initial opportunity to drive for Niece come together then and again for 2021?

Daly: Well, last year was all Travis Pastrana. He came up with this idea that “hey, why don’t we go real racing instead of just the LCQ League” — all the stuff that we’d been doing online and on iRacing. And when Travis sets his mind to something he does it, so I was definitely in…we put some partners together. …Red Bull helped [Travis] out as well. For me, it was something that I’ve always wanted to do. For him, it was more, I think, for the hilarity of us racing against each other. I couldn’t convince him to do it this time. I think he’s done racing ovals forever, he says, so we’ll see. …[Racing against Travis] was awesome, [though]. Travis was a hero of mine.

After how well the race went last time, I just wanted to do it again. I was like, this is something that I think I can get, I can wrap my head around. I enjoyed it, I enjoy the racing, I enjoy different things. [For this year], it was something that I had been talking to [Niece Motorsports crew chief] Cody Efaw and the team about. They had this seat open for Vegas, which is obviously the only race that made sense because no other races have practice or at least ones that I could do [that] had any practice, so we ended up at Vegas once again.

Cheek: You’ve driven in two different NASCAR series, IndyCar, Indy Lights, GP2, GP3, WeatherTech and the Chili Bowl – pretty much everything. How has that diversity in experience driving pretty much everything helped you in your career when you jumped into a new car?

Daly: I think it always helps just to diversify your portfolio, as they say. It’s something that I’ve enjoyed. I love driving new stuff. I love taking in new experiences and I’ve been fortunate to do so. I think there’s there’s still a few things on my list — [I] want to do the Daytona 500, I want to do Le Mans. But I’ve been very lucky to do a lot of things so far.

…The Chili Bowl and the dirt racing has been very difficult, but every time I get in there, we get a lot better. The truck, I think, I took to a lot better than I expected to. This race was very, very surprising for me over the weekend. I was like, “man, we were we were really fast.” I talked to my crew chief and we were one of the fastest Chevy trucks out there. And I’ve never practiced in one of these we’ve done one race, so that’s something that I’ve adjusted to I think well, which I want to keep doing, but I’m obviously not sure if that’ll happen. But I think all the experience in every different car helps, no matter what I’m driving.

Cheek: Let’s go back to the beginning. What sparked your interest in racing?

Daly: Well, I started when I was 10 in go-karts, and I obviously had some family history in racing. Racing was all that I was around, and it was really the only sport that I wanted to truly be better at every day. I played a lot of other sports…game time was fun, but [with] racing, I could truly get out to the go-kart track and practice and want to be better.

…Winning in general in motorsport is, I think, one of the most satisfying victorious feelings that you can get, so that was really what drew me towards it. It seemed like I knew what I was doing and I guess people told me that they [thought] I knew what I was doing, which was good. And it eventually worked out. So it’s just something that I’ve loved. The sport is in an interesting spot: the politics of the sport are not something that I enjoy, but the true driving of the race cars is still such such an exhilarating feeling.

Cheek: What are the biggest differences you’ve noticed between NASCAR, IndyCar and other series?

Daly: I mean, car-wise, they’re completely different. It’s like the NBA and the NFL — they both play with balls, but they’re completely different sports. I would say the same is very similar to racing. Ask Jimmie Johnson. …I think IndyCar mixes a bit of everything. Almost anyone can win, and you’ve got a seven-time NASCAR champion, you’ve got a two-time V8 Supercar champion coming to race, you’ve got current Formula One drivers coming to race with us. So it’s almost like the best of the best are coming to IndyCar, and I think that doesn’t get enough attention. Hopefully, this year, we can really push that.

Cheek: I also wanted to touch on IndyCar. You’re splitting [Ed Carpenter Racing’s] No. 20 with Ed but running a majority of the races in that car, as well as piloting a separate entry for the Indianapolis 500. You ran the full IndyCar schedule last year. What are you taking from that experience for 2021 and what are you most looking forward to?

Daly: Obviously, last year was different. We didn’t get to go to a lot of the venues, which was sad. So basically getting back to the normal, full schedule, going back to some of the street courses, some of the new street courses as well and Nashville, I think, is really, really cool. There’s just a lot of tracks that we didn’t get to go to, and we start off the season at Barber, a place that we didn’t get to race at last year.

So there’s a lot to look forward to, and last year was obviously the first year with the aero screen. So that added a lot of interesting new handling characteristics to the car, which I know our team has worked a lot on [over the offseason] to try and help us as the drivers to get better and to get a better approach to the setup for the weekend and the handling of the car. So it’s cool to be able to basically just reap the rewards of the offseason, and that’s what I’m most looking forward to.

Cheek: Between your crash at Vegas last week and some of your IndyCar wrecks, such as with Josef Newgarden at Texas a few years ago and in Indianapolis 500 practice in 2013, how do the dynamics of accidents between the series differ?

Daly: I mean, [they’re] different. I think IndyCars when they crash, they’re designed to explode. They’re just designed to shed parts, [but] NASCAR seems to be a little bit different. That’s my only ever impact in a NASCAR, so I don’t really know, but it was quite hard. It’s just different because it folds up, rather than explodes and sheds parts. But obviously, they’re designed well; it was a very hard impact and I’m fine. So they clearly designed safe chassis, which is great. But just [a] very different design, the car’s very different in the way things happen for NASCAR, they have power steering. So when the steering hits the wall, it doesn’t react like it would in IndyCar. [There], you better take your hands off the wheel, because there’s no power steering and it’ll rip your wrists right off.

Cheek: Looking back on 2020 as a whole, whether it was NASCAR, IndyCar or anything else, how do you reflect on the COVID-impacted season?

Daly: It was weird. Even our IndyCar weekends were a lot more condensed when we ran several doubleheaders because we couldn’t go to some of the events. So just one of those seasons that I think you want to forget. I mean, last year, there were some great moments. Some of the best moments of my life I had last year, honestly. Getting my first pole in IndyCar was huge for me, and there was a lot of great results that we had last year. But there weren’t the fans to share that with, there wasn’t the emotional environment.

…But already, everyone’s more positive. Vegas was much more open. You know, there were fans in the stands, that was great to see. Obviously, the IndyCar season is starting out with fans, because our first few races are Alabama, Florida and Texas, and that’s going to be really, really cool. I think, no matter what, the state of the world is getting more positive every day. Everyone has a more positive outlook for sure, we’re all going the right way. People got their vaccinations, we’re getting more and everyone’s kind of getting into like, “alright, hey, look, let’s get life rolling again.” We’re all ready to start moving and shaking and getting back to maximum happiness.

Cheek: Outside of the strangeness of last season, how do you look back on more than a decade of professional racing and the experience you’ve gained throughout your career?

Daly: I mean, my career has been weird. Overall, I think there’s no better way to describe it. It’s been one of the strangest IndyCar careers, for sure. But we’re still here, and I think we’re in one of the best positions that I’ve been in in my career. I finally get to have continuity with a team two years in a row. This is the first year that, realistically, I’ve had a second year with the same team, so it’s cool to be able to do that. And I’m very, very happy.

There’s been a lot of situations where we’ve purely just had bad luck. If you’re a Twitter follower of mine, there’s an active meme that goes around: “Bad Luck Conor.” I’ve just been in weird situations. Not sure why it happens, not sure how it happens, but I end up getting screwed by certain things that I can’t control. And so my goal is just continue to not focus on things that I can’t control. I’m putting myself in the best position possible every single time and I’ve got to do the job when I get out on the racetrack, so I’m very, very happy with the situation that we’re in now.

Cheek: One more question. You debuted this majestic mullet on social media in the past few weeks. Where did the inspiration come from?

Daly: Honestly, it came from [NASCAR’s] Noah Gragson, he inspired it. And then I just started seeing some of the powerful mullets out on the internet and some of the racing champions in the past have had some incredible mullets, and I’m at a stage in my life where I don’t really care what people think of how I look. You got to be comfortable with who you are, and there’s wild amount of people who are offended by my haircut. I was like, if you guys are that offended by the way someone cuts their hair, probably reconsider what your thought processes are. Because this is just a hilarious thing that guess what, in 10 seconds, it could be gone. It’s something that I’m going to try and grow out and see what goes on, and the Air Force love it, contrary to what people think. They’re like, “hey, it got a lot of attention.” It did. And it still will, and guess what’s on my chest every time we get a picture taken of it? U.S. Air Force. So yeah, it’s hilarious. It’s a bit of a ride, I don’t mind. If I can make people laugh in life, that’s been a goal of mine, so I can’t complain.

Follow @adamncheek

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