Dwight native Joe Howard is set to begin a milestone 15th year as an engineer in the Verizon IndyCar Series as the 2018 season gets underway Sunday with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (11:30 a.m., ABC).

Howard is the senior damper engineer at Ed Carpenter Racing (ECR), a small team by IndyCar standards with fewer than 40 full-time employees, but one with a reputation as a "giant killer" in battling the Andretti, Ganassi and Penske powerhouses in the ultra-competitive series.

In charge of the shock program at ECR, Howard, a Dwight High School graduate, has put his Purdue engineering degree to good use in playing a vital role in helping the team try to maintain its status as one of the quickest among the quick.

An offseason challenge has been sorting through the sophisticated complexities of a new generation aero package.

While the new package has created an absolutely sleek, gorgeous race car, it also is equipped with considerably less downforce than last year's model.

That will put the drivers' mettle to the test in finding and exceeding the limits of cars they discovered to be dancing, squirming and moving around beneath them in preseason testing.

For Howard, the challenge lies in re-calibrating the damper and suspension configurations to minimize the speed-scrubbing movement.

"We've been aggressively developing alternate (damper and suspension) packages to mate with the new aero package," Howard told The Pantagraph this week. "I'd like to say we've nailed it, but it's a work in progress and development time is dwindling quickly."

Communication between drivers and team engineers is crucial in sorting out the new package and putting a competitive car on the track.

Howard has been working with drivers Spencer Pigot and Jordan King in preparing for Sunday's season opener.

Pigot, 24, is the winningest driver in the history of the "Mazda Road to Indy" ladder system and takes over as the lead driver at ECR after previously competing part-time for the team on road and street courses.

After a winter of on-track testing, as well as time in the simulator, Pigot eagerly looks forward to this weekend in St. Pete.

"It's the closest race to where I grew up in Orlando," Pigot said. "It's nice to kick off the season where I have lots of family and friends that come to support me. It's my first race weekend as a full-time Verizon IndyCar Series driver, which is pretty exciting. I am in a position where I've always wanted to be."

Howard, who has worked with some of the sport's biggest stars, likes the raw talent and potential Pigot brings.

"Spencer continues to grow," he said. "I only expect him to improve, as he's done steadily over the last 18 months. Fortunately, he got to participate in a lot of offseason testing this winter and that was very valuable to everyone."

King, 23, moves into the team's part-time road and street course role and will be making his IndyCar series debut this weekend.

King is the 2013 British Formula 3 national champion and an FIA Formula 2 race winner a year ago. He served as a development driver for the Manor Formula 1 team in 2015 and 2016.

"I'm really excited for my first race weekend in the Verizon IndyCar Series," King said. "The team has done some really good work over the winter. I'm feeling positive going into the weekend but with an open mind on my expectations. Hopefully, we can have a good weekend and take home a decent result in my first race."

Pigot and King will be negotiating a 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street circuit this weekend. Because it's a temporary course on the streets of downtown St. Petersburg, there's no preseason testing at the track. 

Howard says that adds enormous importance to the two Friday practice sessions and another Saturday morning, in getting the cars dialed in for Saturday afternoon's qualifying and Sunday's race.

"It's also crucial to show up with a package that's somewhat close," he added.

Sebastian Bourdais came from the back of the pack to win last year's Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, driving a car fielded by Dale Coyne Racing, a team based in Plainfield (the shop is visible off of I-55). Bourdais was one of 10 different winners on last year's 17-race tour.

An ECR entry was not among the 10, but has IndyCar victories dating back to the team's inception in 2012. Until last year, an ECR car had won at least one race every season since 2014.

Howard sees this weekend's event as wide open.

"St. Pete tends to be a survival event and if a team can run competitively and stay out of trouble, there's a strong chance they'll end up on the podium," he said. "The change in downforce could produce some unexpected front-runners at times, so stay tuned."

Follow Bruce Yentes on Twitter: @pg_yentes