Thursday July 18th, 2024 8:09AM

Drivers face new challenges in NASCAR Cup debut at Iowa Speedway

By Reid Spencer NASCAR Wire Service

The race for a dwindling number of NASCAR Cup Series Playoff spots will take a new turn on Sunday when drivers line up for the Iowa Corn 350 Powered by Ethanol at Iowa Speedway.

You can hear the action on WDUN AM 550 & FM 102.9 and streaming at accesswdun.com beginning at 6 p.m. Sunday. 

NASCAR’s top series will compete at the 0.875-mile short track for the first time, though more than a handful of participants in Sunday’s race have raced at Iowa in the NASCAR Xfinity and NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series.

The driver with the most significant advantage on Sunday may be Christopher Bell, who participated in a Goodyear tire test at the partially repaved track two days after winning the rain-shortened May 26 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte.

Bell also posted back-to-back Xfinity Series wins at Iowa in July of 2018 and June of 2019. A month after the second of those two victories, Bell finished second to Chase Briscoe at the Newton, Iowa, speedway after leading 234 of the 250 laps and sweeping the first two stages of the final NASCAR race there before this weekend.

Under the circumstances, Bell is eminently qualified to provide an assessment of the way the track will race when NASCAR’s premier series visits for the first time.

“Iowa has always been one of my favorites, that’s for sure,” Bell said. “I’m excited to get a Cup race there…

“The repave made it a whole new race track. It adds a lot of grip to the track. Iowa was a place that was a low-grip track before, and you could move around all over the place and really pass guys.

“I’m a little bit worried now that the pace is going to be really fast, and it’s going to be harder to pass, but the speeds are going to be tremendous—that’s for sure—when we come back and race.”

Kyle Larson, winner of the most recent Cup race at Sonoma, and Brad Keselowski also participated in the tire test. Keselowski cited one significant improvement with the repaving project, which added new asphalt to the bottom two lanes.

“It used to have this really wicked tunnel bump down in (Turns) 1 and 2,” Keselowski said. “Now that’s been kind of taken care of, which is nice, because the Next Gen car doesn’t really play well with bumps, kind of like an IndyCar.

“But I think it’ll make the car more raceable.”

Bell and Larson don’t need victories at Iowa, given that both are solidly in the Playoffs with multiple wins this season. Keselowski, who won the first Xfinity Series race at Iowa in 2009, punched his Playoff ticket with a triumph at Darlington.

The same can’t be said for the Cup Series’ active two-time champions, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano. Both are just outside the Playoff bubble, with Busch eight points behind Bubba Wallace (the last driver currently in a Playoff-eligible position) and Logano another eight points behind Busch.

With Austin Cindric nabbing a Playoff spot by virtue of his June 2 win at World Wide Technology Raceway, seven spots are left with just 10 races remaining in the regular season.

Iowa may be the perfect prescription for Logano, who has a penchant for conquering new territory. The driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford won the first Busch Light Clash at the L.A. Coliseum (2022), the first race on Bristol Dirt (2021), the inaugural Cup event at WWT Raceway (2022), and the first NASCAR All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro Speedway (second overall) after a complete repave (2024).

“I don’t know exactly what it is,” Logano said. “It’s obviously our whole team does a really good job at anticipating what a race will be like or what we’re going to need in the car without any history.

“We do a great job anticipating, whether that’s from just years of racing or… I don’t know what else it could be.”

NASCAR Xfinity Series returns to an oval after Kiwi domination

If the NASCAR Xfinity Series’ first trip to Iowa Speedway since 2019 will be a tutorial of sorts for New Zealander Shane van Gisbergen, it’s familiar and welcome territory for Justin Allgaier, who will compete there for the 17th time in Saturday’s Hy-Vee PERKS 250 (3:30 p.m. ET on USA, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Van Gisbergen, a three-time Australian Supercars champion, is fresh from back-to-back victories on road courses at Portland and Sonoma, but the Kiwi has never won on a NASCAR oval and hasn’t posted a top 10 on an oval track since his sixth-place finish at Phoenix in the fourth race of the season.

Understandably, van Gisbergen will need to sharpen his skills on conventional NASCAR tracks during the remaining regular-season races in order to be a contender for the championship. Included in the list of Playoff tracks is just one road course, the Charlotte Roval.

Allgaier, on the other hand, is an adept road racer as well as a perennial contender on Xfinity ovals, and in the field for Saturday’s race, only Jeremy Clements (19) and Joey Gase (17) have more Iowa starts.

The driver of the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet has scored 12 top 10s in his 16 starts at the 0.875-mile track, with a win in 2018 and three other top fives to his credit there.

Already locked into the series Playoffs with a victory at Darlington, Allgaier can add to his current total of 15 Playoff points (bolstered by a whopping 10 stage wins) with a victory at Iowa.

“I’m really looking forward to our return to Iowa this weekend,” Allgaier said. “This has always been one of my favorite tracks, and it’s great to be going back there.

“JRM was always really strong (there), and I see no reason why we won’t have that same speed again when we unload for practice on Friday. Hopefully we can have a smooth weekend and be fighting for the win on Saturday.”

The only variable Allgaier hasn’t faced at Iowa is the partially repaved surface—a necessity given the age and degradation of the original asphalt there.

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