Every so often the Indianapolis 500 produces a day to remember for one or more drivers who have yet to make an impact on the Verizon IndyCar Series trail.
In a race marred by ten caution flags and only 19 cars running at the conclusion, Dale Coyne Racing newcomer Ed Jones and Chip Ganassi sophomore Max Chilton were each within range at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway of putting on the winner’s wreath and taking a sip of milk.
Jones’ Sunday output at the Brickyard was the continuation of a brilliant IndyCar Series debut year after earning a full-time ride following a championship-clinching effort in the Indy Lights Presented By Cooper Tires series a year ago. The Dubai-based pilot overcame early adversity to secure a third-place finish.
“It was a great race for us,” said Jones following the checkered flag. “The race was so up and down for us. Solid start. We were running in the top 10, 11, for most of the first half.”
Then came the potential roadblock. While trying to avoid Scott Dixon and Jay Howard’s massive accident on Lap 52, the Boy Scouts of America Honda pilot suffered damage, forcing his pit crew to replace the entire rear-wing assembly. Seemingly out of contention entering the second phase of the event, the DCR team used a clever strategy call to flip the order in their favor.
“We actually pitted right before (the eighth caution flag), so it put us near the front,” explained Jones. “I actually damaged my front wing (in the latter stages), had a big hole in it. My legs got pretty cold, to be honest. I had wind blowing into them like crazy. Also created a lot of drag.”
The one thing that saved the effort despite the new personal demon was the Honda power behind him. Even with fellow runners suffering from reliability woes late on Sunday, the rookie was able to avoid the same maladies to secure the podium performance. The result represents the third top-ten in 2017 for Jones, vaulting him to ninth on the current IndyCar points table.
For Chilton, he took on the role of potential winner at CGR that before the battle began seem destined for his Indy 500-winning teammates Dixon and Tony Kanaan. With the Iceman wrecked and TK unable to take the lead at any point during the 200 laps, a similar plan B tact taken by his former Indy Lights co-pilot at Carlin Racing. The decision suddenly propelled the second-year Indy starter into the conversation.
Taking advantage of the same caution flag that Jones utilized, the Gallagher Investments Honda chauffeur turned an improbable 40-lap fuel stint; into a pathway to the finish without a late-race splash for gas.
Thrust into the number one position for the next 30 laps, Chiton’s stay on top of the scoring pylon finally came to a halt, just seven laps from the end when three-time Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves overtook him. Losing out also to eventual race winner Takuma Sato and Jones, the ex-Midland F1 team member settled for fourth at the conclusion.
“You don’t win this race without luck,” admitted Chilton. “I led (several) laps today, once my car was in front I was so unstoppable. But you don’t want to be leading with five or six laps to go because they can draft past (as Castroneves) did.”
The outcome is the best outing in 22 efforts for the 26-year old, improving on a seventh-place score earlier this month in the IndyCar Grand Prix.
While most spectators may forget their achievements on this day, the showings by both Jones and Chilton prove the Indianapolis 500 has a become a race capable of putting an unknown name into the spotlight.
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