Iowa Preview

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Tomorrow night will mark the thirteenth running of an IndyCar race at Iowa Speedway, located in Newton, Iowa. The NTT IndyCar Series began racing at Iowa Speedway in June of 2007, less than a year after the 7/8-mile track opened in 2006. That race was known as the Iowa Corn 250, which was won by Dario Franchitti, who was driving for Andretti-Green Racing at the time. Franchitti would go on to win the first of his four IndyCar championships that year.

From that opening race through 2010, the Iowa Corn 250 was run on Sunday afternoons. Then in 2011 in one of the smartest moves made, the race was switched to Saturday night. Is there anything more traditional than short-track oval racing on a Saturday night in the Midwest? From 2011 through 2015 (with the exception of 2013), the race was run on Saturday night. But beginning in 2016, the race was moved back to Sunday afternoon.

Somewhere in there, the race shifted from a June date to a mid-July date. The state of Iowa is the only state in the contiguous 48 states that I’ve never set foot in. But I don’t need to go there to know that Iowa is very hot in the afternoons of July. With the shift to late Sunday afternoon, attendance dwindled predictably. Remember the casual fans I mentioned on Wednesday? They aren’t driving to remote Newton, Iowa to bake in the stands in the late afternoon; only to face a long drive back home late Sunday night. Only your hardcore fans will do that.

Fortunately, someone finally wised up and moved this race back to Saturday night. I hope this race never runs in the daytime again, except only as a Sunday makeup rain date.

This isn’t a perfect Saturday night schedule. The green flag is scheduled to fly at 6:10 pm local time. Record heat is predicted for this weekend, and the high is estimated to come around 5:00 pm. Our friend Pressdog, who lives in Iowa, reported on Twitter last night that it was still 90-degrees at 9:00 pm. So if you thought tomorrow night’s race was going to be run in much cooler conditions than the past few years, you were mistaken. I’m sure this was dictated by TV, but I’d like to see a slightly later start in the coming years. There may even be some lingering daylight by the time the race is over.

I’ve heard the arguments about not starting too late for the East Coast viewers. It’s not like this race takes place on the West Coast. We are only talking a one-hour difference in time. Starting an hour later will ensure that the race finishes in total darkness, yet it will still finish no later than 10:00 on a Saturday night in the east. Has the fan base aged so much that they need to go to bed before 9:00 on a Saturday night? I certainly hope not.

Tomorrow night’s iteration of this race will be known simply as the Iowa 300. Fifty laps have been added since the initial race in 2007, but this is the first year that they have not had sponsorship from the Iowa Corn farmers. I think for this race to continue long-term, they will need to land a corporate sponsor. I hate to be “Mr. Gloom & Doom”; but if they can’t, I think you may want to put this track on the endangered watch list – especially now that it has been owned by NASCAR as of November of 2013.

For almost the first decade, this race was essentially Michael Andretti’s playground. His team won seven of the first nine IndyCar races held there, including every race run from 2010 through 2015. But since they moved the race to the daytime, the last three races have been won by Ed Carpenter Racing in 2016 (Josef Newgarden), Team Penske in 2017 (Helio Castroneves) and Schmidt Peterson last year with James Hinchcliffe.

Carlin Racing will have two new drivers from last year’s race. In 2018, Carlin fielded cars driven by Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton. Kimball was always to be on a limited schedule, but Pato O’Ward had been slated to drive the second Carlin car in the other non-Kimball races. As we all know, that has changed. For the second week in a row, Sage Karam has been tabbed to drive the No. 31 car. And with Chilton no longer running the ovals for this season, Conor Daly has been chosen to drive the No. 59 car in place of Chilton.

There is one livery change for this weekend. Felix Rosenqvist will be driving a second PNC Bank car for Chip Ganassi. It will have the reverse scheme of Scott Dixon. Where the nose of Dixon’s car is orange, Rosenqvist’s will be blue. Dixon normally has blue sidepods, so Rosenqvist will have orange ones. It will take some getting used to.

There will be only one practice before qualifying, starting this morning at 10:00 am CDT and it will be shown on NBC Sports Gold. Then qualifying will be shown live on NBCSN Friday afternoon at 1:00 pm. There will be a final practice on Friday night at 6:00 pm CDT on NBC Sports Gold. The race coverage begins Saturday night at 5:30 pm CDT on NBCSN, with the green flag waving shortly after the beginning of the broadcast at 6:10 pm CDT.

So who will win tomorrow night? Josef Newgarden is the only one of the four drivers in the hunt for the championship that has ever won at Iowa. Team Penske has only won once in the previous twelve races there, and I don’t think Penske will prevail Saturday night. Scott Dixon has never finished better than third and Simon Pagenaud has never finished better than fourth at Iowa. Alexander Rossi’s best finish at Iowa is fourth – and that was his rookie year. So none of the front-runners, other than Newgarden, have been that strong at Iowa.

This is a track that if you hit the right setup, you can carve up the field, just like Newgarden did in 2016 while driving for Ed Carpenter. Andretti Autosport knows how to set up a car at this track – especially for a night race. An Andretti driver will win this race, but it won’t be Rossi. Zach Veach’s terrible season will continue, so it won’t be him. My heart is telling me it will be Marco Andretti, who won this race in 2011; but my head says it will be Ryan Hunter-Reay. My head wins out. Ryan Hunter-Reay will pick up his first win of the season tomorrow night, but look for Marco Andretti to have a strong night, improving on his season-high sixth-place finish he earned at COTA and Belle Isle. As far as the championship goes, I think Josef Newgarden will increase his current four-point lead over Alexander Rossi this weekend. That’s a lot of predicting. We’ll see how it goes.

George Phillips

4 Responses to “Iowa Preview”

  1. I have a feeling Pagenaud is going to go on a tear and steal this championship away from Rossi and Newgarden. Not what I want to see happen but he’s been strong lately and when he’s strong he’s been destroying the field.

    • Ron Ford Says:

      Not to be overly picky here, but earning the championship is not to be confused with “stealing”.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    The great thing about night, or even evening races, is that the change in temperature can result in cars performing unexpectedly better or worse before and after sundown. The last night race, in 2015, saw all of the Penske and Ganassi cars qualify well and then most of them wilt as the sun set.

    Iowa is one of my favorite stops for IndyCar, it is such a unique track for both its short length and remarkable speed. It races half like a traditional short oval and half like a superspeedway and is really a great fit for these cars.

    Iowa is certainly in trouble if it cannot find sponsorship, of course, but I don’t think NASCAR owning the track is really a detriment to the race continuing (unless the track gets a Cup race, which does not appear to really be on the table in the near-term). The track wants successful events and IndyCar is by far the track’s best crowd these days. I think they’ll want to continue that if possible.

  3. Ron Ford Says:

    It’s is midnight and the race is only 1/3 over. Props to the track officials for getting the race in and for some very dedicated fans. The fans only have to get up tomorrow in time for church, assuming the race is over by then.

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