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Bruce Yentes

Bruce Yentes

"Hard-working, smart, dedicated."

To a man, those are the first words used by Verizon IndyCar Series team owner Ed Carpenter, as well as teammates and co-workers, to describe Dwight High School graduate Joe Howard and his contributions to their efforts.

As the senior damper engineer in charge of the shock program at Ed Carpenter Racing (ECR), Howard used those attributes to again play a key role in putting one of the team's entries on the front row of the starting grid for Sunday's 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 (10 a.m.; ABC).  

In a yearly battle with the Andretti, Ganassi and Penske powerhouse teams, it's the fourth time in five years an ECR car will be up front.

Howard, a Purdue engineering grad, has been with ECR since the team's inception in 2012, contributing to Carpenter's back-to-back pole winning efforts in 2013-14, as well as Josef Newgarden's front-row start a year ago. Carpenter will start in the middle of the front row Sunday.

"We never get tired of doing that, it means a lot to us," said Howard, speaking to the Pantagraph by phone from Gasoline Alley. "It shows we've got the speed we need. It also shows that Ed and our drivers are doing a helluva job."

The race is the largest single-day sporting event in the world and from his spot on pit road, Howard on Sunday will look across the track at a sea of color jamming the massive grandstands that line the front stretch, contributing to a crowd that could nudge up over 300,000.

He'll hear the crowd erupt into a thunderous roar when the pace car takes a hard left into the pits and leaves the starting field in the front row hands of veteran Scott Dixon, Carpenter and reigning Indy 500 champ Alex Rossi.

Seconds later, the roar will blend with the ear-splitting, ground-shaking cacophony of 33 of the fastest race cars in the world as they flash across the start-finish line in a 230-mile per hour, three-wide, 11-deep drag race to the first corner.

Being part of it has been a lifelong dream for Howard. He's been living that dream for 14 years now, having spent eight years with Andretti AutoSport before moving over to ECR.

On Sunday, Howard will view the race from the pit stand of ECR driver J.R. Hildebrand, who will start on the outside of Row 2.

Carpenter and Hildebrand are the two fastest drivers powered by Chevrolet in a starting field dominated by Honda, which has 14 of the 17 fastest starters.

"It's one of the most interesting races we're going to have from a crew standpoint," Howard said. "It will come down to how well the cars will handle in traffic with the Hondas, the fuel mileage situation for both makes.

"We qualified both cars up front, but I wouldn't say I'm more optimistic or any less optimistic. We've always had strong cars and I've expected to contend for the win on race day. It's no different this year."

The final practice session before Friday's Carb Day was held Monday. Both Carpenter and Hildebrand are pleased with where they stand heading into the final tuneup.

"I'm happy with the way the Fuzzy's Vodka Chevrolet handles (in race trim)," Carpenter said. "It's still hard with the Hondas in traffic, they have something we don't. It's slightly concerning for race day, but we'll take a look and run as trimmed as we can. I'm happy with the car, the team has done a good job and we're getting what we can out of it."

A key will be keeping a gaggle of Andretti Hondas surrounding them from ganging up. Hildebrand starts right behind Rossi and alongside Fernando Alonso, a two-time Formula 1 World Driving Champion who has been stellar in building speed in the first oval track outing of his career.

"I think we'll have our work cut out for us like you do every year," said Hildebrand, who finished sixth in an ECR car last year. "With some good stuff from Chevrolet and our ECR guys in the pits, hopefully we can keep the Preferred Freezer car up front."

Howard says this year's race has been especially difficult to prepare for because of wild variations in weather conditions on the practice days, when the teams gather data to put to use in setting up the car for race day. The wind, which can wreak havoc with a 1,525-pound car traveling at eye-popping speed, has been especially daunting.

"Every change can have a dramatic effect," Howard said. "It doesn't take much for the car to be off."

The powerful Penske cars were off a bit in qualifying, but will be a force to contend with on race day. Like the Andretti entries at the front of the field, the Penskes are bunched in the back and fans can look forward to an afternoon of watching how well they can work their way through the field.

Add in one of the sport's all-time greats, Dixon, at the front of the field, plus the ever-present dark horse cars that annually emerge and the pressure-packed challenges on an often hectic pit road. That makes Sunday's race pretty much up for grabs.

"This year is wide open," said Howard. "We're looking forward to the first 100 laps as much as anybody else to see how we are and where we're at. The potential is there. We just have to deliver."

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