Among the sadder sights to come from the final NTT IndyCar Series race of 2019 was former Rookie of the Year Ed Jones pulling away from the paddock on Sunday evening.
As Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden was busy celebrating his second NTT IndyCar Series championship at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, Jones said farewell to his Ed Carpenter Racing team after a disappointing 23rd-place finish. Climbing into his modest Chevy rental car, Jones drove away by himself, leaving behind a three-year stretch that went from immense promise in 2017 with Dale Coyne Racing to relative anonymity with ECR.
Having gone from an impressive Indy Lights champion to a young man lacking prospects to remain in IndyCar, Jones wound his way through the Monterey hillside without a reason to believe he’d be asked to return. And that’s where the belief of others has come to hand Jones a second chance that is both deserved and intriguing.
Thrown an IndyCar lifeline by his first team owner and the two co-owners that form Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser Sullivan, Jones was chosen to replace Santino Ferrucci in the No. 18 Honda over much bigger names on the free agent market. The reason? Trust. Coyne never wanted Jones to leave for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2018. And having seen Jones complement former DCRVS driver Sebastien Bourdais as a rookie, Vasser and Sullivan have every confidence in the 25-year-old to please their sponsors and deliver the consistency that was lacking in 2020.
“The way things went in 2019, I don’t feel it represented how strong I can be; I definitely didn’t do that,” Jones told RACER. “As time went on, it was frustrating, thinking, ‘Well, we may have seen my last season in IndyCar.’ But then I felt that I’ve got to do whatever I can to get back and get back to where I was before, finishing on the podium, running well. I didn’t want to leave IndyCar, sulking around at the back because that doesn’t reflect where I’m at, what I know I’m capable of.”
Coyne’s fondness for Jones, which led to discussions about a reunion in 2021, is mutual.
“I’ve always kept in contact with Dale, and this opportunity is something which was really important for me,” Jones said. “It’s unfinished business. And I really feel strongly about that. I would say, of course, I want to get great results for the team. It’s different working, not just for Dale, but with Vasser Sullivan this time around, and a company like SealMaster. I had to do it, because I knew that if I didn’t take this opportunity, I’d be regretting it later on.”
Jones is among the most low-key drivers to grace the NTT IndyCar Series, but for those who’ve seen him drive in competitive open-wheel cars, there’s no question regarding the intensity that emerges behind the steering wheel. His heartbeat will certainly rise with spirited co-entrants like Jimmy Vasser and James ‘Sulli’ Sullivan, which Jones is ready to embrace.
“Being out for the last year made me realize how much I missed racing an IndyCar and meant that I really did do everything I could in the last few months to make this happen,” he said. “Dale and Jimmy and Sulli had many other options out there, and I feel privileged that they did choose me because it was easy for them to go other ways, as well.
“It’s really important for me to have been brought back, and it’s going to be great working with Dale again and having the addition of Jimmy on the stand talking with me is going to be great to learn from his quality and his experience, which is something I’m excited to get going with.”
As a rookie, Jones had four-time Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais to act as a guide and mentor to all the new experiences he would face. With the strong likelihood of having two rookie teammates in ex-Formula 1 driver Romain Grosjean and 2019 Asian Le Mans Series LMP2 Am champion Cody Ware in Coyne’s sister entry, Jones is prepared to assert himself as a leader and resource to the French-American duo.
“That doesn’t faze me one bit,” he said. “It’s the time I need to be at that point. I need to get back in the car, and be straight up to the level where I need to be and be relied on. You want to be in a situation where that is happening. You don’t want to go through a career where you’re always relying on the other teammate. So, it’s a positive; it is a new thing, but I’m really excited for that opportunity. And, I’ve really loved working with the guys at Coyne in the past, and I think as a group, we can be really strong. I had that phase when Seb got injured at Indy in 2017, and I did have to take lead of the team for a while. So, I’m completely unfazed by that, and looking forward to the challenge.”
Jones turns 26 on February 12. He’ll rejoin the series as a young veteran among similar young veterans and next-generation talent like Colton Herta, Pato O’Ward, Rinus VeeKay, Alex Palou, Jack Harvey, and Scott McLaughlin who represent the series’ future. Despite the brief hiatus and unrewarding end to his first stint in IndyCar, Jones wants nothing more than to restore the acclaim that marked his arrival in the series.
“It’s been great to see guys, some young guys doing really well in IndyCar,” he said. “A lot of the guys that have done well, I’ve competed against before and beaten in the past and in junior categories as well. So, I know how I stack up against everyone. I know I belong there. And yeah, it’s just that I think what happened in my previous or the beginning of my IndyCar career, I’d say, whether it was some great results, lead to different movements in teams and then maybe some poor results led to other movements. Circumstances change — maybe things happened, not the right timing. Not using it as an excuse, but maybe wasn’t in the right stage to move to certain places.
“But I feel that although I’ve had a year out, I’ve been able to go over everything that I’ve done, recollect myself. And although I haven’t done a huge amount of driving this last year, the driving that I have done, although it’s in sports cars, I feel like I never left the cockpit. If anything, that year out has been refreshing in a way. And now, I’m recharged and ready to go at it again.”