Joe Gibbs Racing put on another dominant display at Iowa Speedway. This time, it was Erik Jones’ turn to visit Victory Lane.
Jones won the US Cellar 250 on Saturday night, earning his third victory of the season and fifth XFINITY win overall. Jones started second and quickly established himself as the driver to beat, leading 154 of 250 laps.
“It’s a great day, man. We had a great car, one that definitely deserved to win the race,” Jones said. “The fastest car, I feel like, won tonight, which is always a good feeling.”
Jones did not lead all of the first 150 laps, but he looked nearly untouchable as the sun set. He was very quiet on the radio as the No. 20 DeWalt Camry carved up the field. Only JGR teammate Daniel Suarez appeared to have a car that could hang with Jones.
Pit stops were the one weakness of the JGR teams. The organization opted not to fly the Sprint Cup crews to Iowa from Pocono Raceway. Instead, JGR assembled makeshift pit crews of free agents to service the cars of Jones, Suarez and Dakoda Armstrong. The rest of the front runners had their usual pit crews, and the inexperience of the JGR fill-in teams proved costly when the leaders pitted under caution on lap 151 for what would be the final stop. Ty Dillon and Elliott Sadler left pit road first, taking the top two spots. Jones slipped back to third, while Suarez fell to seventh.
On the following restart, Suarez slammed into the back of Josh Berry, causing significant damage to both cars. Suarez got the worst of the incident, but hung on until lap 178 when the water temperature on the No. 19 car rose too high. After pitting and discovering damage to the radiator, Suarez retired from the race.
Meanwhile, Jones worked his way back to second place but had trouble running down Dillon. Although Jones was able to keep the No. 3 car in his sights he could not get close enough to attempt a pass.
“I was really working as hard as I could to get around Ty,” Jones said. “It was tough, man. The aero, the air game was pretty tough, (I) just needed to get clean air for a long time.”
The leaders were also keeping watch on their fuel over the long green flag run that ended the race.
“I don’t think we were too close,” Jones said. “I don’t know how many more we could have gone. But we definitely had enough, fuel pressure wasn’t starting to move at all, and I was saving for the last 10 or so just to make sure we were on the side of it that we needed to be.”
Jones chipped away at Dillon’s lead during the closing laps. He made his move after Dillon lost some momentum trying to lap Blake Koch. Jones completed the winning pass with 16 laps to go and pulled away, denying Dillon the chance to snap a two-year winless drought.
“I want to win so bad, and we were close,” Dillon said. “That was all I had… you have to give it all you have every lap. We just came up ten laps short this time.
“(Jones) ran a good race,” Dillon continued. “I did all I could to keep him behind me and it just wore my stuff out a little more than I needed to if I would have had a bigger gap. But he could charge me and make me make mistakes, and he just had a better car there. I wish I could have been a little bit more perfect tonight.”
Sadler led nine laps early in the race. Despite being concerned about fuel, Sadler finished third and took over the points lead from Suarez, who wound up 30th after the restart incident. Sadler, Suarez and Jones remain the only XFINITY regulars who have won in 2016.
Brennan Poole put on an impressive run of his own at Iowa. Poole started 25th and slowly worked his way through the field, taking advantage of a car that appeared to get better as the race progressed. Poole’s fourth-place finish was his second top 5 of the season. He is in great shape to make the Chase, sitting 149 points above the cutoff with seven races to go.
A couple of old faces in new places made the most of some good opportunities as well. NXS regular Dakoda Armstrong jumped into JGR’s No. 18 car on Saturday, filling in for Matt Tifft. In what was by far his best race (and fastest car) of the season, Armstrong was a regular sight in the top 10. He picked up a few positions in the closing laps and crossed the finish line in fifth. That is Armstrong’s first top 5 ever in the XFINITY Series.
Additionally, June Iowa winner Sam Hornish, Jr. returned to the series. This time, he drove Richard Childress Racing’s No. 2 car. He posted a respectable sixth-place finish.
Darrell Wallace, Jr. crashed in turn 2 not once but twice on Saturday night. His first incident on lap 28 triggered the race’s first caution as he went sliding down the backstretch. Wallace sustained some back-end damage to his car but was able to continue. He even earned the free pass on lap 42 and got back on the lead lap. Unfortunately, Wallace hit the wall again on lap 122. He would finish 11 laps down in 27th place.
Making his second start of the season, Brandon McReynolds had a hard crash in turn one on lap 149. A left-rear tire failure sent his No. 24 car sliding towards the wall, promptly ending McReynolds’ race. He would finish 32nd.
Underdog Performance(s) of the Race
Drew Herring stepped into the No. 28 JGL Racing car normally piloted by Armstrong and delivered a 12th-place finish. It is Herring’s best result in four starts this year. Koch (13th), JJ Yeley (14th) and Ryan Sieg (15th) also turned in good performances.
Double Duty Interlopers
Brad Keselowski has three victories at Iowa. He was also the only Sprint Cup regular in the field on Saturday night. Yet Keselowski and Team Penske struggled by their standards. Keselowski never challenged for the lead and spent most of the race in the back half of the top 10. The resulting eighth-place finish is Keselowski’s worst ever at Iowa in seven starts. Team Penske’s lackluster XFINITY season continues.
“We keep saying we’re a team of bulls. We fight to the end. We still got a long way left to go in this season and I’m looking forward to the Chase and getting this 48 DC Solar machine in victory lane.” –Fourth place finisher Brennan Poole
“(I) just have to figure out what I need in these cars. It was a lot of fun. So hopefully we’ll keep improving and have a lot of fun.” – Fifth place finisher Dakoda Armstrong
“I don’t really know. I just know that he stopped really aggressive in front of me and at that point there’s nothing you can do. I think it’s our fault to be back there with those guys.” –Daniel Suarez after getting knocked out of the race
The Final Word
Things turned out okay for Jones in the end, but it was shocking how close he came to losing the race with the best car. His mention in Victory Lane of clean air being important was disheartening. Iowa Speedway is not a traditional short track, but it seems like NASCAR cannot escape the clean air problem at any of its venues.
That said, any aero difficulties were a minor aspect of an enjoyable race. Iowa is popular among the drivers for having multiple grooves to choose, and most of time, on track passing looked relatively easy back in the pack. Additionally, the absence of most of the Sprint Cup drivers gave the NXS regulars and some part-timers a chance to be in the spotlight. Jones ran away with the lead for most of the race, but nobody should complain about an event that did not have the end tainted by sketchy debris cautions or questionable officiating. The best cars got to race each other at the end, and the better car won.
The XFINITY Series gets its first road course race of the season on Saturday, August 6, when the Zippo 200 will take place at Watkins Glen International. Race coverage begins at 2 p.m. ET on CNBC.