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Daly Eager for Breakthrough Opportunity at Indy with Andretti, Air Force

The roots started to grow for Conor Daly’s prime ride with Andretti Autosport in the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge just minutes after he climbed from his car after last year’s race.

Daly, from Noblesville, Indiana, had just finished 21st in his fifth Indy start, driving a Honda-powered entry fielded by Dale Coyne Racing and Thom Burns. His Indy career-best finish was the culmination of a tense Month of May during which Daly struggled for speed and just made the show as the 33rd and final starter on the grid.

After wiping the sweat from his brow on a 91-degree race day and talking with his team, Daly sought feedback from his new sponsor for the race, the United States Air Force. He worried that the last-place start and the 21st-place finish may have disappointed the gathered Air Force officials.

“As soon as I got out of the car in May, it was, ‘How did this program go?’” Daly said. “And the Air Force was like, ‘Really well for us.’

“The race was not great. The whole month was quite a struggle, and they saw that. But they got so much out of it that they were like, ‘We need to do this again, immediately.’”

Daly then brought Air Force officials to the NTT IndyCar Series race last July at Mid-Ohio, as they began working to find a team that matched their goals, ambition and budget. Daly and the Air Force decided that the best course of action for their available funding was to race the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on Sunday, May 26 with the best team possible.

Enter Andretti Autosport.

The team certainly fits the success bill. Andretti has won the Indianapolis 500 three of the last five years, with Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2014, Alexander Rossi in 2016 and Takuma Sato in 2017. The only other team to win the “500” during that span was Team Penske, with Juan Pablo Montoya in 2015 and Will Power in 2018.

Andretti sales and marketing officials flexed their considerable skill and presentation muscle on behalf of Daly with the Air Force, and the deal was sealed before last Christmas and announced in late January.

“In racing, if you want to do better, you have to spend more,” Daly said. “That’s just science. There was a question of how do we justify that, and we found the answer to that, which was with Andretti. So it all made sense.

“As soon as the season ended, we already were pretty far down the line with Andretti, and we ended up finishing in December, right before Christmas. To go into Christmas with that feeling of at least I’ll be semi-employed was nice.”

The anxiety of finding an Indy 500 ride is over for Daly. But when that deal is with the best team at the Indy 500 of the last five years, a different kind of stress arises.

He knows this isn’t just his sixth chance to start “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” Andretti’s track record proves this is Daly’s best chance so far to win the world’s most prestigious race.

Andretti also has a well-earned reputation for turning out Honda-powered cars for Indy-only drivers that are just as meticulously prepared and fast as those for its four full-time drivers – Hunter-Reay, Rossi, Marco Andretti and Zach Veach.

“You’ve seen, no matter who it is, any time Andretti shows up with extra cars, they’re good,” Daly said. “Carlos Munoz, Stefan Wilson last year, Fernando Alonso, Townsend Bell. It’s certainly cool.”

Aligning with a powerhouse team like Andretti also will provide a few other advantages. Daly will test with the team in late April on the IMS oval. Plus he will have a chassis and universal aero kit at Indy assembled, tested and massaged just for the 500-mile race on the oval, another possible edge.

“I like the technical side of the oval racing, for sure,” Daly said. “That side of things is where I’m most excited to be with Andretti. The pinnacle of technology is those guys. They’ve got all the dampers, wind tunnel time or whatever they need to do to make the cars fast at Indy.

“The new package seems to be really, really affected by any small pieces of drag. So to have a fully oval-prepped car, that’s the dream with Andretti.”

Daly also identified one other perk, with a laugh: He won’t need to rely on the kindness and extra hotel beds of friends in the NTT IndyCar Series paddock on race weekends this season. Andretti is picking up the tab for him to attend every race this season with the team even though he’s only scheduled to drive in the “500.”

He also has the freedom to jump into a ride with another team, much like he did with Harding Racing last season on the mid-summer races at Toronto, Mid-Ohio and Pocono. But Daly wants to grow deeper roots with the Air Force and Andretti and is focused on just one race right now – the biggest of them all.

Striking a balance between that anxious anticipation and trying to enjoy every second of the best chance to earn a spot on the Borg-Warner Trophy remains a challenge for the colorful, ebullient Daly.

He knows how fate can be as fickle as the track temperature in May at IMS despite every hour of pre-race preparation and all the speed shown in practice and qualifying. For example, Daly’s car caught fire on the second parade lap of the 2015 Indy 500 due to an overheated exhaust system, and he never saw the green flag.

“It’s hard, man,” Daly said. “I’ve been a victim of really random situations at Indy before. The car burning to the ground before the race even starts. You never know what can happen. It’s hard to think about.

“All I think about is I so hope this goes well. It’s such an opportunity, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You can’t let that get to you. I’m a super laid-back guy. I love the fact that this is happening. It’s something I’m going to try and enjoy.

“As long as I put in everything that I possibly can to make it the best opportunity possible, then I can come away with it feeling pretty happy. If some crazy stuff happens, then it happens. The car is going to look cool, it’s going to be a good opportunity, and the Air Force is going to be there. It’s going to be awesome. So we’ll have to see how it turns out.”

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