Jones making impressive drive toward rookie of year honor

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Learning on the fly is the norm for Verizon IndyCar Series rookie drivers. Adapting to a race car likely more powerful and reactive than they’ve ever driven before, on unique and widely different tracks, against perhaps the deepest talent pool in racing, it would be easy to excuse newcomers who struggle during their first season in North America’s premier open-wheel series.

None of that has slowed Dale Coyne Racing’s Ed Jones, who is well on his way to securing Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors midway through the 2017 season. The reigning Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires champion has amassed five top-10 finishes in his first 10 Verizon IndyCar Series starts and sits 10th in points heading to this weekend’s Iowa Corn 300.

Jones has turned more than a few heads along the way. The fact that he sits higher in the standings than veterans and race winners such as James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti is evidence of the promise that the 22-year-old has displayed.

“It’s gone a lot smoother than we might have expected,” Jones said after a seventh-place finish in the most recent race, the KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America on June 25. “It’s always tough, the races are much longer than I’m used to, there are pit stops, it’s a different way of racing. In a way, it’s a bit more strategic, and I really enjoy that part.”

Along with the typical rookie learning curve, Jones was delivered a midseason curveball. The driver of the No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda suddenly became the team’s most experienced driver when teammate and four-time Indy car champion Sebastien Bourdais was injured in a crash during Indianapolis 500 qualifications. Unfazed, the rookie responded by qualifying 11th and finishing third in his first Indianapolis 500.

Many felt Jones’ performance merited him being named rookie of the year for “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” but that honor went to two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso, who skipped the Monaco Grand Prix to race at Indy. While pleased with his Indy 500 podium finish, Jones believed he could have won had it not been for front-wing damage sustained late in the race.

“It was my target to get to the last pit stop and still be within a chance of winning the race,” Jones said, “and I got pretty close to what I wanted to do. I gave it everything at the end, obviously with the damage it made it hard to compete with Helio (Castroneves) and Takuma (Sato), but to come away with third in my rookie 500 is an amazing result.”

Team engineer Michael Cannon has guided Jones since the beginning of the season and seen few “rookie moments” from the native of the United Arab Emirates who hadn’t raced in the United States until 2015 when he joined Indy Lights, the top level of the Mazda Road to Indy developmental ladder.

“It’s kind of an interesting dynamic,” said Cannon, “because when he joined up with us (at) the first few tests, he was a sponge. He picked up very, very quickly and, honestly, he’s gotten to the point now where he has a very good idea what the race car needs in a lot of situations. Not all of them, but a lot of situations, and if we just do a good job of listening to him, he’s right 90 percent of the time.”

Cannon characterized Jones as “impervious to pressure” in May, which the veteran engineer believes has helped his driver adapt to the intense competition as seamlessly as he has.

“One of the challenges in the series, especially for a rookie, is every racetrack you go to, you expand your knowledge base,” said Cannon. “You’re never really repeating yourself. It’s not like a lot of these series around the world; there’s always something new and unique about these events.

“He does a very good job of analyzing what’s going on in the car, analyzing what he needs to make it faster. He’s definitely mature beyond his years. I often forget he’s only 22 years old. He’s very, very mature.”

Coupled with Bourdais’ win to start the season in St. Petersburg, Jones’ continued strong performance has confirmed Dale Coyne Racing’s resurgence as a contender. Jones aims to score a few more trophies for the team before all is said and done in 2017.

“I think as the season’s gone, the team’s been strong on all types of tracks, so it’s another way to show that the team’s gone to another level this year,” said Jones. “It’s great to be a part of it and we’re working hard to be in the top 10 every race. We’ve had a pretty good record of that, and now I think we can start to aim for top-fives and even a few more podiums.”

Jones and the rest of the Verizon IndyCar Series field head to Newton, Iowa, this weekend, home to the 0.894-mile Iowa Speedway, the shortest track on the 2017 calendar. Coverage of the Iowa Corn 300 begins at 5 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

For more information about Honda Racing, visit http://hpd.honda.com/.


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