At least Brad Keselowski had to work for it.
The driver of Roger Penske’s No. 22 was the only Cup regular in the field at Iowa Speedway Saturday night, but make no mistake: he was there to dominate. Penske’s No. 22 organization is set on scoring the owners championship in the series for the 2013 season, stacking its team with, often, Keselowski and fellow Penske Cupper Joey Logano.
But on Saturday, against a field of Nationwide regulars and part-time competitors getting a shot in good equipment (see: Drew Herring, Ryan Gifford), Keselowski didn’t have an easy time en route to victory. A pit violation set him way back into the field, and then there was the looming issue with his overheating engine, which seemed like it could give out at any time.
On lap 216, after taking four tires on the previous caution, the Michigan native finally jumped to the point and held it, leading the final 35 laps to score his third win of the Nationwide season in nine races.
Of course, his win came at the expense of his teammate yet again. For the second time this season, Sam Hornish Jr., currently immersed in a valiant drivers points battle, finished second to a Cup teammate, having also lost to Joey Logano at Chicagoland two weeks ago. While second-place points are still effective, the spot put him tied for second exiting Iowa, rather than in sole possession of the position.
It didn’t help matters for Hornish that Austin Dillon, the leader entering Iowa, led the most laps during the race — 116 — and finished fourth. Though Dillon has still not won a race in 2013, he seemed on the brink at Iowa yet again, something at least vaguely encouraging for the series points leader.
Hornish and Regan Smith sit 14 points back in the standings, Smith losing ground to Dillon after finishing 11th, despite leading 59 laps early in the going.
Brian Vickers (third) and Kyle Larson (fifth) were the other top-five finishers, while Drew Herring, Alex Bowman, Elliott Sadler, Ryan Gifford and Trevor Bayne rounded out the top 10.
It was a great day for some of the series’ part-time drivers who got shots in prime rides for Iowa. Both Drew Herring and Ryan Gifford ended up in the top 10, the former starting on the pole for the race. Herring, driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, led the first 26 laps of the race, and though he was never a factor for the win for the rest of the race, he was always nearby, coming away with a better result than his other start of the year, when he finished 11th at Iowa earlier in the season. Gifford, meanwhile, made the most of his debut in the series, piloting the Richard Childress Racing No. 33 to ninth. The K&N Pro East driver was methodical in moving up from his 23rd-place starting spot, keeping his nose clean and eventually sticking into the top 10 by race’s end.
Kyle Larson may have had a superb Truck race at Eldora last week, but his Nationwide Series results as of late had been anything but. Well, kind of. Larson rattled off eight straight top-10 finishes over a two-month period between May and July, but hadn’t finished there since Daytona. He still hadn’t gone outside the top 14 in the three races since, but those aren’t exactly the types of finishes that win championships. His fifth-place showing Saturday launched Larson out of his mini-slump (if you can even call it that) and sets him 47 points behind Dillon in the points.
Ryan Gifford had a great debut, but the other two first-time drivers in the Nationwide Series Saturday? Not so much. Richard Harriman, piloting the No. 23 for Rick Ware Racing, brought out the race’s final caution with a spin on the frontstretch, coming home 29th, 10 laps down. Meanwhile, Travis Sauter, son of former series competitor Tim, was slow off the truck for Joe Nemechek’s No. 87 and was one spot worse, finishing 30th, 12 laps behind.
Sure, Justin Allgaier finished on the lead lap, but he was also the final driver to do so in the race. That put him 17th, behind a score of drivers with whom he’s competing for the points championship. Allgaier’s showing lost him one spot and 15 points to the leader; now, he’s seventh, and 50 points back. That’s not insurmountable, but nights like Saturday definitely don’t help.
It feels like this is becoming a recurring theme, but Travis Pastrana is just not on top of things anymore. He started off the season with some solid finishes, but his results lately have been mired with crashes, spins and altogether poor showings. On Saturday, his lap 200 crash in turn three set him back even further, relegating him to 27th, seven laps down, by lap 250. Roush Fenway Racing hasn’t been an incredible team this year anyway, but 14th in points? Woof.
Underdog Performer of the Race: He drove a Childress car, which is by no means an underdog team, but Ryan Gifford isn’t exactly regarded as a prime driver — yet. He only just got his first K&N Pro Series win this season, and has never finished above ninth in the series standings. That makes his ninth-place finish at Iowa all the more encouraging; after all, he didn’t enter the race with scores of wins and an intense amount of hype. At the very least, he earned himself a shot in some capacity in one of NASCAR’s top series somewhere down the road.
Start-and-parkers occupied seven of the 40 starting positions in Saturday’s race, taking home $85,763 in purse money.
Cup regulars won the race, scored one of the top 10 finishing positions, occupied one of the 40 starting positions and took home $73,740 in purse money.
The Final Word:
This points race continues to be incredibly entertaining. Sam Hornish, Austin Dillon and Regan Smith are locked in such an intense battle that, when the Nationwide cars are on the track, it’s not enough to just check out the battles up front for the win or even for the top five.
Even when two or more of the three drivers (or four, if you count the looming Elliott Sadler) race around each other, you feel the intensity and intrigue. The majority of interactions have been pleasant if not civil, Smith and Sadler’s recent run-in notwithstanding, though one expects that to ramp up a bit as the season draws to a close — especially if the points continue to be this close.
Now, the series heads into two straight weeks of road course races. Think the points were unpredictable before now? Just you wait.
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