Dwight native Joe Howard has climbed many a peak and traversed many a valley during his 14-year career as an engineer in the IndyCar Series. As a matter of fact, he's seen almost a career's worth of ups and downs this season alone.

Right now, what Howard would like to see more than anything else is an Ed Carpenter Racing (ECR) entry pull into victory circle in his native Illinois as the series heads to Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison — just outside of St. Louis — on Saturday night (8 p.m., NBCSN).

Howard, a Dwight High School and Purdue engineering graduate, is the senior damper engineer at ECR, a team that has excelled this season on short ovals like Gateway with driver J.R. Hildebrand delivering a pair of podium finishes.

First came a third place at Phoenix International Raceway in April followed by a runner-up performance at Iowa Speedway in early July.

The team is hoping to see the trend continue on Saturday night on the 1¼-mile Gateway oval.

"We've had good cars on the short ovals and the podium finishes," said Howard in a phone conversation with The Pantagraph earlier this week. "The thing is, you don't really celebrate the podium finishes. Even though you did well, you always end up thinking about what you could have done to win."

Battling the powerful Penske, Ganassi and Andretti teams at auto racing's elite level, ECR is no stranger to the victory circle. Wins date back to the team's inception in 2012 and, until this year, they've won at least one race every season since 2014.

Three more chances remain this year with road course events at Watkins Glen and Sonoma following Saturday's race at Gateway.

While a front-runner on the short ovals and competitive on the superspeedways this season, the team has struggled a bit on the street and road courses that combine to make the IndyCar series the most diverse in all of auto racing. 

The struggles, some attributed to nothing more than the simple bad luck of being on the short end of an ill-timed caution flag, can be frustrating. Howard has learned to take it in stride.

"I've been through similar years before or even worse years with other teams," Howard said. "In this sport, you go through ups and downs. It's just part of it."

A bona fide highlight this season for Howard and the team was putting a car on the front row of the Indianapolis 500 starting grid for the fourth time in five years, with Carpenter qualifying second fastest to IndyCar great Scott Dixon. Hildebrand was also strong at Indy, qualifying sixth fastest.

What happened next was fairly indicative of the roller-coaster nature of the season and the tough luck that's befallen the team thus far.

While both cars ran among the leaders for much of the Indy 500, Carpenter ended up 11th after contact with another car damaged the front wing and necessitated an extra pit stop.

Hildebrand appeared headed for a top-five finish when race stewards deemed that he jumped a late-race restart by passing a car that had dramatically slowed in front of him. With few laps remaining, he was unable to recover from the subsequent drive-through penalty and finished 16th.

Immediately after the race, both drivers summed up what would become a fairly consistent theme for ECR this season, regardless of the track configuration.

"It's a lousy way to end a race where the team did a great job and the car was good enough to hang on up there," Hildebrand said. "For executing at a high level all day, for it to end like that leaves you feeling empty inside."

"It's a bummer, the result didn't show what type of car we had," Carpenter said.

Howard and his ECR teammates are focused on Carpenter or Hildebrand being IndyCar's 10th different winner this year as the series visits a newly repaved Gateway for the first time since 2003.

"We've tested there a few times now," Howard said. "It was smoother and had more grip than we thought it would have."

Carpenter, meanwhile, is looking forward to the challenge of the uniquely shaped oval.

"Turns one and two in St. Louis are very tight and a little more banky, very challenging," he said. "Turns three and four are more open radius and fast cornering. It's similar to Pocono, not in layout but in uniqueness and character.

"When you have that, it really makes it a challenge for the driver and the team to get a balance in the car that works at both ends of the track. When you have that compromise, I think it produces really good racing."

Practice at Gateway begins at 4 p.m. on Friday with qualifying slated for 6:30. A final IndyCar practice is scheduled from 9 to 10 p.m. A 7:15 p.m. pit stop competition will precede Saturday night's race.

Bruce Yentes covers motor sports for the Pantagraph. He can be reached at byentes@pantagraph.com. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_yentes


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