Virtually to a man, Dwight native Joe Howard's Verizon IndyCar Series brethren express admiration for his work ethic.

That "nose to the grindstone" attribute is key, as Howard — the senior damper engineer at Ed Carpenter Racing (ECR) — arrives daily on Gasoline Alley at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway not long after the crack of dawn and toils until well into the evening.

The task at hand is preparing three competitive cars for the May 27 Indianapolis 500. The obstacle is figuring out the intricacies of a spanking new superspeedway aero package, vital to a sport where every hundredths of a second of advantage can pay track position dividends in a racing discipline where straightaway speeds approach 240 mph. 

Through it all, Howard found time to share with The Pantagraph the progress of ECR as it contends for qualifying and race day supremacy.

"It's gone fairly smooth, so far," said Howard, of an April 30-May 2 open test at the speedway and the first two days of practice for the event this week. "Running in traffic has been challenging with the new cars, but it seems most teams are trying to adjust to it, as well. Relative to our competitors, we feel we haven't been at a disadvantage yet."

Howard and his ECR teammates have received high marks for their efforts from a guy whose opinion counts the most.

Team owner Ed Carpenter told IndyCar Communications personnel, "I'm happy with where we're at, feeling good with the speed we have in the car."

Carpenter is the last of a breed of owner-drivers in major league motor sports who also assumes driving responsibilities on the IndyCar series' ovals.

Heading into this weekend's Indy 500 time trials (3 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday, ABC) ECR and speed at Indy have almost become synonymous. Although one of the smaller organizations in the series, the team has outdueled the Andretti, Ganassi and Penske behemoths to put a car on the front row for the start of the Indy 500 in four of the past five years.

Included were back-to-back pole-winning runs by Carpenter in 2013 and 2014. Reigning series champ Josef Newgarden added a middle-of-the-front-row start for the team in 2016 before moving to Penske. Carpenter followed with a front-and-center start in the field again last year.

"It helps to have a driver like Ed behind the wheel. That's key," said Howard, a Dwight High School and Purdue engineering graduate in his 15th year as an IndyCar engineer. "In addition, the team has a lot of experience building cars and setting up cars for Indy. Having drivers willing to push the envelope is the final step in all of the preparation."

In addition to Carpenter, Spencer Pigot and Danica Patrick will be called upon to push the envelope in ECR entries this weekend.

Pigot is the winningest driver in history in the IndyCar series ladder system. He's seeking his second Indy 500 start and first with ECR since assuming the team's lead-driver slot this season.

Patrick has been attempting to get reacclimated to an open-cockpit, rear-engine car after a seven-year absence from IndyCar racing. She found herself making progress in that regard on Wednesday.

"I think the main area that was improved was just my comfort level in traffic," she said via IndyCar Communications. "We still have to make the car better, but me getting more comfortable is also going to help that process."

While most of the time in the first week has been devoted to gathering as much data as possible on the performance of the new aero package with varying fuel loads and in different traffic situations, the prime focus on solo runs and this weekend's quest for the pole will come on "Fast Friday" when the rules allow a boost in horsepower.

"Obviously, qualifying and the race are two different beasts to tame," Howard said. "Our team's primary goal throughout the year is to win the Indy 500. I think our homework and preparation has shown promise."

In Thursday's final day of testing before the gloves come off and the horsepower's added on "Fast Friday," Carpenter ended fourth on the speed chart at 225.093 mph.

"In some ways we got better, in other ways, we didn't," he said via IndyCar Communications. "Track temperatures were probably the highest they've been all month and it was a little windier today, so that gave us more to work on. The car has good speed in it, it's just a matter of getting it right for whatever the conditions are at that point in time."

Pigot was ninth at 224.251.

"Track conditions were a lot more difficult today," he told IndyCar Communications. "We still got in some good work to get ready for tomorrow and also for qualifying. Overall, I feel like we're in a good place and we're moving forward everyday."

Patrick was 30th among the 35 cars entered at 222.216.

"Today definitely didn't go as well as we'd hoped," she said via IndyCar Communications. "We'll regroup tonight and come back tomorrow focused on trying to find more speed before qualifying."

Contact Bruce Yentes at (309) 820-3391. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_yentes


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