Jones' season impresses, despite lack of rookie competition

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Unlike the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series championship which will be on the line in Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, the Sunoco Rookie of the Year prize was never really in doubt.

As the only full-time rookie this season, Ed Jones pretty much had the title sewn up when he strapped into his No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda at the season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Officially, he clinched top rookie honors following the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline at Gateway Motorsports Park on Aug. 26.

While there's been no real rookie opposition, Jones is on pace to end 2017 where other top first-year drivers have finished in recent years. With the double-points finale in Sonoma to go, Jones is 14th in the standings but only 28 points out of 11th. The best rookie performance in the past decade was Simon Pagenaud, who finished fifth overall in 2012. Last year's top rookie, Alexander Rossi, ended the season 11th in points.

Without any other first-year drivers in the field for most of the season, Jones looked to the other side of the Dale Coyne Racing garage to gauge his performance.

“Having Seb (Sebastien Bourdais) as a teammate has been really helpful and a good benchmark because I think he's one of the best drivers in the series,” Jones said. “That's been the main thing to look at and I have been able to learn a lot from him and get better as the season has gone on.”

Jones moved up to the Verizon IndyCar Series this year after winning the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires championship in 2016. Part of the title prize for the Indy Lights champ is a $1 million Mazda scholarship that guarantees at least three races in the ensuing Verizon IndyCar Series season, including the Indianapolis 500. Jones parlayed that into a full-season drive at Dale Coyne Racing.

Born in Dubai of British parents who moved there for work four decades ago, Jones races under the United Arab Emirates flag. Having such an eclectic background helped when he left Europe to race in the United States in 2015 to race in Indy Lights.

“Dubai is a very multi-cultural city. It's quite different, but it is so Westernized that its probably similar to some of the places in the United States even,” he said

“There was a little adjustment, but I have been traveling to race all over the world since I was 15, so I have gotten used to different places and cultures.”

It didn't take long for Jones to get comfortable in his Indy car, taking a top-10 finish in his first two Verizon IndyCar Series starts, including a sixth place in the second race of 2017 on the streets of Long Beach.

The 23-year-old surprised many with a stellar performance in the 101st Indiana 500, driving an excellent race all day and finishing in third place. Not only was it Jones' best result of the season so far, but it was also the highest-ever finish for Dale Coyne Racing at the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

“Obviously, Indy was our highlight, but it was a tough race. It was my first 500-mile race, so there was a lot to learn throughout that race,” he said.

“Dale Coyne Racing is a very small team, but I think we have shown with us at Indy and Seb throughout the season that our team is working really well together and can get great results.”

Bourdais’ accident in Indianapolis 500 qualifying threw a wrench into the mix, robbing Jones of valuable guidance through the middle part of the season as Bourdais missed nine races recovering from injuries.

“It made it tough — especially Detroit — which was the race right after the accident,” Jones said. “I had never been there before, so it was one of the tracks that I would have benefited the most from having him around.”

James Davison (one start), Tristan Vautier (one) and Esteban Gutierrez took turns filling in for Bourdais in the No. 18 Honda.

“We still got on with it and, I think for a rookie season, it was good to have Seb early on and then have to deal with (Bourdais not driving). I experienced things this year which will make me a stronger driver if I get another chance next year.”

Jones said he would like to stay with Dale Coyne Racing in 2018 but doesn't have a deal in place. While finding a home for his sophomore year may be tough, Jones feels his rookie season shows he belongs.

“There's a lot I could have done better, but I think I did all right for my first go. I think early in the season I did a good job and a lot of things fell my way, so we were getting results. Recently, we have probably been doing a better job, but things have just gone against us a lot of the time,” he said.

“We've been pretty strong on the superspeedways, we struggled a bit on the short ovals, the street circuits have been OK and we struggled on some of the road courses, but all in all we've been pretty good.”

Jones turned just eight laps in the opening session of today’s series-wide open test at Sonoma Raceway. A second session runs from 5-9 p.m. ET, with live timing and scoring at RaceControl.IndyCar.com.

The GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma weekend officially begins with practice on Friday. Verizon P1 Award qualifying airs live on NBCSN at 6:30 p.m. Saturday. The 85-lap race on the 2.385-mile permanent road course takes place Sunday, with NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network offering live coverage at 6:30 p.m.

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