In less than one week, Sam Hornish, Jr. went from standing on NASCAR’s sidelines to celebrating in Victory Lane. Making his first start of 2016, he jumped into Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 car as a replacement for rookie Matt Tifft, who sat out this weekend’s race at Iowa Speedway with a back injury.
Hornish qualified third, leading 183 of 250 laps en route to winning the American Ethanol E15 250. It was his fourth victory in the XFINITY Series and second at Iowa.
“It doesn’t get much better than that,” Hornish said after the race. “Just gotta thank Toyota, everybody from Joe Gibbs Racing for getting me out here and giving me this opportunity. I’ve got my wife and kids here; it’s the first time the kids got to be here for one of Dad’s wins.”
Hornish had not competed in a NASCAR race since November of last year, but he certainly did not look rusty on Sunday. He spent the first half of the race swapping the lead with teammate Daniel Suarez. Suarez had an excellent car on the short runs, and won all of the races off pit road following the early caution periods. Each time, however, Hornish prevailed in the long runs, retaking the lead from Suarez about 20 laps after the restart.
Following a caution on Lap 126 for Derrike Cope’s crash, a round of pit stops shook up the running order. Darrell Wallace, Jr. took over the lead by staying out of the pits. He gave way to rookie Brennan Poole following a Lap 131 restart, only to have Suarez take the lead back the next time by. Following a caution for Blake Koch’s spin down the frontstretch, Hornish regained the lead from Suarez on the restart and never looked back, leading the final 111 laps.
“I can’t tell you what this means to me,” Hornish said. “(I’ve) worked so hard to try to get a win when I’ve had my kids here… you gotta thank God, He makes things happen.”
Once Hornish was back in the lead, he displayed his strength. The No. 18 team had been having a lackluster day on pit road, prompting JGR to make a pit crew swap between the teams of Hornish and Erik Jones, who dropped out of contention for the win early. Hornish had no problems during his final pit stop at lap 195.
With 20 laps to go, both Ty Dillon and Brad Keselowski attempted to chase down Hornish. Dillon had been lurking in the top ten throughout the afternoon until crew chief Nick Harrison made some key adjustments to the No. 3 car, allowing him to advance to the top 5.
Meanwhile, Keselowski had to start at the rear of the field after his team made an unapproved body modification to the No. 22 car. He slowly got more competitive as the race went on, challenging Hornish for the victory late in the going.
In the end, though, neither of them could catch Hornish. Dillon was closing the gap between himself and the No. 18 car following the race’s final restart on Lap 224, but Hornish drove away from everyone over the final 10 laps, leaving Dillon second and Keselowski third. Suarez and Alex Bowman completed the top five.
“We just need to be a little bit better,” Dillon said after the race. “The 18 was so dominant on the bottom. I felt like we were obviously the best car up top. Just need a little bit more speed.”
Keselowski, a three-time XFINITY winner at Iowa, ran out of laps to really put the pressure on Hornish.
“I thought we were probably just a little bit better than the No. 3 car, but I kept losing the battle off of pit road, and that wasn’t helping, and I couldn’t get back by him,” Keselowski said. “I thought maybe I could have at least ran equal to Sam, but never got that shot.”
Suarez increased his title lead to 21 points over Elliott Sadler, who finished sixth. Suarez, Sadler and Jones remain the only three XFINITY regulars with wins this season.
The JR Motorsports divers continue to pile up top ten finishes, with Bowman, Sadler and Justin Allgaier finishing fifth, sixth and seventh, respectively. Bowman had another solid outing in his part-time campaign, posting his second top five in four XFINITY starts this year.
Full-time drivers Sadler and Allgaier had a few challenges to overcome. Sadler had to start at the back of the field due to an unapproved body modification. He had cracked the top 10 by Lap 56 and even closed in on Hornish and Suarez during one of their battles for the lead. He has now amassed 12 top-10 finishes this season.
Allgaier started near the front of the pack and ran very well for most of the day. The No. 7 team attempted to gain track position by taking two tires under the lap 126 caution, but was hit with a penalty for entering pit road too fast. Allgaier fought back to claim his 11th top 10 of the year, but the penalty effectively ended his chances at victory.
Jones’ feast or famine season continued at Iowa. He qualified on the pole, but like Keselowski and Sadler, had to start at the rear of the field for an unapproved body modification. It took Jones less than 20 laps to reach the top 10, but he started reporting low fuel pressure shortly thereafter, finally coming to pit road on Lap 40. It turned out that Jones was having a fuel pickup problem, and that the system would not work if Jones’ gas tank dropped below 30 percent full.
Jones stayed in the race and put himself in position to get the free pass, but he continually had to visit pit road sooner than the other drivers to keep the fuel pickup problem in check. He eventually went behind the wall to have the problem addressed. Jones’ day ended with a 27th place finish.
Drew Herring’s third NXS start of the season with JGL Racing started off OK, but things began to fall apart on Lap 193, when JJ Yeley pinched Herring into the frontstretch wall. Herring proceeded to make additional contact with Yeley, sending the No. 44 spinning into the grass and bumping the inside wall. His crew made repairs to the No. 24 Toyota, but was later hit by teammate Dakoda Armstrong on Lap 218, bringing out the race’s sixth and final caution. Herring did not return to the race after the second incident, ending his day in 29th.
Underdog Performance of the Race
Ross Chastain was another driver who had to start at the back of the field. He managed to stay on the lead lap and finished in 14th position. Chastain is only nine points behind Ryan Sieg for the final Chase spot.
Double Duty Interlopers
Two Truck Series regulars pulled double duty at Iowa, veteran Travis Kvapil and newcomer Ben Kennedy. Kennedy made his XFINITY Series debut, racing the No. 2 car for Richard Childress Racing. He ran in the top five early, but slowly faded over the course of the afternoon, eventually finishing 10th. Kvapil finished five laps down in 23rd, but he made it to the end of the race in Rick Ware’s No. 25 Ford.
“I was so nervous on Friday, getting into the car and thinking I’m going to make a mistake, and to go out there and win the way that we did, just can’t say anything more about it.” – Sam Hornish Jr. after winning in Iowa
“(We are) still trying to get this program where we want it to be. (We) wanna be a little bit faster than what we’ve been, but we’ll keep working on it.” – Brad Keselowski after finishing third
The Final Word
The last two XFINITY Series winners have been a part of emotional celebrations. Before Hornish came to NASCAR, he scaled heights in American open-wheel racing that few drivers have ever reached. The bulk of that success, however, came before Hornish’s kids were around to witness it.
Hornish’s NASCAR career has been one of ups and downs, and Hornish has not shown any regrets about not racing full-time in 2016. But on Fathers’ Day, Hornish took full advantage of a great opportunity. He showed his ability to perform at a high level as a last-minute fill-in, and having the family there to see it unfold made the victory that much sweeter.
As for the race itself, Iowa put on another entertaining show for XFINITY fans. There was typical, close-quarters short track racing mixed with speeds and strategies more akin to an intermediate track. It is funny how the best stock car races are usually produced at tracks that either force drivers to fight for one, fast groove (think Darlington), or tracks like Iowa that give the drivers lots of options for ways to race each other. Expect to see great racing at Iowa later this year, especially as the track’s pavement continues to age.
The XFINITY Series gets a weekend off before returning to Daytona International Speedway on Friday, July 1st for the Subway Firecracker 250. Race coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.