Jay Howard leads frantic Thursday practice for Indy 500

Joe Skibinski/INDYCAR

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

Just four days into his return to the Verizon IndyCar Series paddock after a six-year hiatus, Jay Howard led the field in the most frantic practice session yet in preparation for the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500.

With former IndyCar (then Indy Racing League) champion Tony Stewart – whose Team One Cure program is serving as Howard’s sponsor – watching on from the paddock, Howard laid down a 226.744-mph circuit around Indianapolis Motor Speedway to pace the field in a hectic session. The 36-year-old is set for his first IndyCar start since 2011 in Schmidt Peterson Racing’s third Honda.

“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.”

The next three positions on the grid all went to members of the Andretti roster, with Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay (225.826 mph) and Marco Andretti (225.709 mph) leading McLaren Honda Andretti’s Fernando Alonso (225.619).

“It’s been tough work, today I guess, but the past couple days,” Hunter-Reay said. “It’s been tricky out there. We’re definitely driving the cars a lot, I can tell you that. We’re on edge. You never really know what the next lap is going to hold, what surprise is coming at the next corner with dirty air or a gust of wind or whatever.”

Josef Newgarden completed the top five, but did so with an asterisk after crashing early in the day. The Tennessean was okay after the incident, but his No. 2 Chevrolet was destroyed.

“Tough break for us in the (No.) 2 car with Team Penske,” Newgarden said. “It’s obviously not something you want to do, especially on a day like today – a pretty nice day out, no big issues. I’m disappointed that we ran into a problem. I just got called into the pits, so I was coming in and I didn’t want to check up too much for the guys behind me and cause a problem. It just seemed to get away from me. Until I get to look at everything, I’m not 100 percent sure what caused it.”

Sage Karam, Charlie Kimball, Oriol Servia, Takuma Sato and Sebastien Bourdais rounded out the top 10. Sato also earned the distinction of fastest no-tow lap in the session, completing a 224.734-mph circuit around the 2.5-mile oval.

Bourdais’ No. 18 Honda became the second car from the manufacturer’s fleet to suffer motor issues late in the session, following a similar incident for Graham Rahal earlier in the week.

After sitting out for the first three days, Buddy Lazier made his way to the racing surface for the first time this season on Thursday. As one might expect, Lazier ended the session in 33rd after completing installation laps in his No. 44 Chevrolet.

With qualifying approaching and near-ideal conditions for race practice, the IndyCar paddock came to life on Thursday, completing a litany of laps (2,362 in all) and running in packs for the late stages of the session.

Speeds and intensity are set to rise once again on Friday. The IndyCar paddock will return to the Brickyard for the final day of pre-qualifying practice from 12-6 p.m. ET – though incoming rain threatens the disrupt the session.

Results, via INDYCAR

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