The Case for Conor Daly

Few teams had a more disappointing 2017 campaign than that of AJ Foyt Enterprises. Making the switch from Honda to Chevy, the legendary team was thought to be in contention for race wins at the start of the year. But as soon as the green flag dropped in St. Pete, it was clear for all to see that they barely had the pace to qualify, let alone win races.

While the reason for the team’s drop off the speed cliff can be attributed to any number of reasons, the fact remains that they had a horrible season. They took a big gamble going into the year, signing two fairly inexperienced drivers in Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz, and it clearly did not pay off for them.

So what then to do in 2018?

Well, the team has taken a major first step. Announced earlier this week, they are signing a multi-year deal with Indianapolis 500 winner Tony Kanaan.

That said, much like Foyt Enterprises itself, Kanaan had a lackluster 2017 season and that may be cause for concern going forward. The Brazilian is now 42, far past what most would consider his prime and quickly entering the age at which most F1 drivers would already have years of broadcasting experience under their belts.

Kanaan hasn’t won since Fontana in 2014 and even at his home away from home, Indianapolis; he has looked less than competitive the past two years.

But what Kanaan lacks in outright pace, he more than makes up for in experience. In IndyCar, being the spec series that it is, setup is key. And Kanaan has proven time and time again that even though he may not be able to win the race himself, he is more than adept at helping the team to get the perfect set up that allows for a teammate to win (just ask Scott Dixon last year or any of his old teammates from the Andretti Stable).

So with TK on board for Foyt, the issue of inexperience is gone. And with it goes the other major concern in IndyCar, sponsors. TK is easily one of the most recognizable faces in IndyCar. He is likable, if not downright lovable, and is an out and out fan favorite (if you want proof of that just listen to the crowd at Indianapolis any time he takes the lead). That kind of loyalty and support means eyeballs on the car. And, as we all know, eyeballs on the car mean sponsors on the car. TK is a major sponsor draw and should help eliminate any need Foyt may have for a second driver to bring major backing.

Here we get to the crux of this article. Who should get the second seat at Foyt? Should Daly or Munoz be held onto? Or should some fresh blood be brought into the Texans team?

For the sake of argument, let’s go through a list of potentials and rule out a few. A veteran could be brought into the team, someone like JR Hildebrand or Mikhail Aleshin. But as neither of them have been brought up in any of the rumor-mongering I’ve been a part of, let’s go ahead and rule them out. Let’s also rule out any true rookies because as of right now there isn’t anyone from the Indy Lights paddock that jumps out as a likely replacement.

Although unlikely, there is the possibility of a former F1 driver coming over to the team. Someone like Joylon Palmer who, according to anyone who has seen a race this year, has as much chance of being retained in F1 as I do. Palmer could take the seat at Foyt. It’s a possibility, but a long shot at best. Foyt will want to keep some modicum of experience in the car and, as far as tracks with a lot of left turns are concerned, needs someone who has driven in IndyCar before.

That leaves us with Daly and Munoz. Two drivers who have had their chance to prove what they are made of in a Foyt machine. Both drivers have talent and have shown flashes of brilliance, but neither have been able to fully capitalize on it. That said, both have risen through the ranks in IndyCar and have an extreme respect for the sport, something that comes in handy when taking the advice of a more seasoned veteran like Kanaan. If Foyt were to bring in Palmer or someone like him, the wealth of knowledge brought by TK may be lost on a driver that has already raced in F1 and believes he knows everything.

So, if the two options Foyt has are Daly and Munoz, who does he choose?

On paper, the choice is Munoz. He outscored his teammate last year, and finished the year strong with points finishes in 3 of the last 4 races. He’s proven he can be competitive at Indianapolis (coming second to the Cinderella story that was Alexander Rossi in 2016) and he’s proven race winner.

So the choice is easy, right? Wrong.

Conor Daly is a special driver. While he did rise up through the ranks of IndyCar, through Star Mazda and Indy Lights, he simultaneously ran in GP2 and GP3. He finished 3rd in GP3, driving for ART in 2013. Munoz, on the other hand, never made it past Formula 3. Daly tested for Force India. Munoz, once again, did not.

Ancient history. I know you’ll make that argument against me. It’s ancient history and a driver is only as good as his last race.

But pedigree matters. And Daly has a better one than Munoz. I’ll even argue that Daly has done more in his two years full years in IndyCar than Munoz has in his four. Yes, Munoz won a race, but that’s easy to do when you drive for Andretti and race on a track that they had a habit of dominating in the pre-aerokit era.

Daly subbed in for James Hinchliffe in 2015 and drove one of the best races of his life at Detroit, holding off the boys from Penske and Ganassi to lock down a solid 6th place. In 2016 he drove incredibly well on road courses finishing 6th at the Indy GP and at Mid Ohio. He put in an incredible 4th place performance at Watkins Glen and he repeated his feat of finishing 6th in Detroit. This was done all the while he was driving for the one car team of Dale Coyne Racing, a team that was barely scraping by race after race.

This year it was a all too familiar story for Daly as Foyt struggled to make their new Chevy engines work. But, once again, he showed flashes of brilliance. He survived the crash-fest that was Texas, it doesn’t matter that he finished 7th, I’ll give him massive amounts of credit for just finishing the damn race. He put in strong performances again on road tracks, coming home 10th at Mid Ohio and Sonoma. And to cap it all off, he drove an incredibly controlled race at Gateway, bringing his car home in 5th place.

Yes, I won’t deny he had his share of mistakes. Indianapolis, in particular, was for him this year. But throughout the season, he simply did not have the car under him to really be a competitor. All that aside, Daly persisted. He fought hard and drove well. If you watch his racing lines and his attack from any race this season you will see a driver that is brimming with natural talent in a car that was virtually undrivable at times.

Daly is young, he is talented, and he is ready to learn. Putting him next to a seasoned veteran like Kanaan is the best way forward for AJ Foyt Enterprises. Kanaan can show the youngster the ropes and help him refine his abilities like few others in the paddock can. Together, they make a fearsome combination. Munoz is good, but he’s been the sport long enough to make me believe he’s reached his ceiling. Daly, on the other hand… We haven’t even begun to see the start of what he can do.

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