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Saturday May 27th, 2017 7:16PM

Howard shakes off rust, tops Indy 500 Thursday practice

By IndyCar Media
  Contact Editor

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. - Jay Howard has been away from Indy car racing for six years, but it mattered not in the fourth practice day for the 101st Indianapolis 500.

Howard, driving the No. 77 Honda for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, posted a lap of 226.744 mph in Thursday’s six-hour session that stands as the fastest of the week. Howard finished ahead of a trio of Andretti Autosport drivers on the speed chart: Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Fernando Alonso.

“This is like a dream right now,” Howard said. “I don’t know if I’m going to wake up tomorrow and it’s all gone. I still can’t believe we’re top of the charts; feels good.

“We all had confidence coming into this, but this is obviously a very good start,” he added. “We still have a lot of work to do.”

Howard, the 2006 Indy Lights champion, has driven in 11 Verizon IndyCar Series races, but none since 2011. His only Indianapolis 500 appearance came that same year, when he started 20th and finished 30th in a joint entry from Sam Schmidt Motorsports and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

The 36-year-old from Basildon, England, has spent recent years instructing young drivers and is grateful for the opportunity to return to Indy with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and sponsorship from retired NASCAR star Tony Stewart’s Team One Cure. Howard credited the chance to test May 2 at the 1.25-mile Gateway Motorsports Park outside St. Louis with helping him feel more comfortable in the car on the historic 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval.

“Just got back in the groove of things,” Howard said. “Kind of like riding a bike, you know, you don’t forget. Definitely, St. Louis was a big help for me, to go out at Gateway and do a few laps there, knock the rust off, just get used to those high speeds again.

“Yeah, this place just as magical as it was last time I was here.”

Hunter-Reay, the 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner, ran a lap of 225.826 mph in the No. 28 Honda. A day after gusting winds limited track action to just more than 400 laps, Thursday saw a total of 2,362 laps turned by 33 drivers.

“We’re all pretty happy with the speed,” Hunter-Reay said of the six-car Andretti team at Indy. “It’s going to be about getting the balance not going off through the run. That is the key to going fast here at Indy.”

Andretti was third on the time sheet at 225.709 mph in the No. 27 Honda, just ahead of Alonso, the two-time Formula One world champion making his Verizon IndyCar Series debut. The Spaniard’s best lap was 225.619 mph in the No. 29 McLaren-Honda-Andretti Honda.

“We tested a couple of different trims and different setup options,” Alonso said. “The car felt quite OK from the very beginning of the morning, but then I think we did improve it during the day, so I’m quite happy.

“We worked still a lot on the race situation, keeping other guys out there and running in traffic. I think we found a good balance for traffic. I think tomorrow we will concentrate a little bit more alone on qualifying, but the priority is the race.”

The lone incident of the day came early, when Josef Newgarden spun exiting turn 1 in the No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet and contacted the SAFER Barrier. Newgarden was uninjured and, though his car was done for the day, wound up fifth on the speed chart at 225.455 mph.

It was another Andretti Autosport driver, Takuma Sato in the No. 26 Honda, who logged the fastest lap without benefit of an aerodynamic tow from a leading car (224.734 mph).

Speeds are expected to increase in Friday’s final practice day before qualifications for “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” INDYCAR regulations allow for engine turbocharger boost to increase 10 kilopascals to 140 kPa on Friday, equating to about 30 additional horsepower permitted through the completion of qualifying.

“Fast Friday” practice runs from noon-6 pm ET. The first day of qualifying follows on Saturday, with the pole sitter to be determined on Sunday.

WDUN will have live IMS Radio Network coverage of the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday, May 28, beginning at noon on 102.9 FM and at 1 pm on AM 550.

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