Photo: Walter G. Arce, Sr./ASP, Inc.

Up to Speed: Previewing the Iowa INDYCAR 250s

By Luis Torres, Staff Writer

A week removed from what can be best described a youthful weekend at Road America (except Scott Dixon winning last Saturday of course), there’s no resting time as the NTT IndyCar Series wraps up its 15-day grind at Iowa Speedway for the second doubleheader of 14-round championship trail.

Whether people call it a short track or an intermediate oval, one thing is certain about these next two races, the young guns aren’t afraid to mix it up with the established veterans.

It was definitely the case for both Felix Rosenqvist and Pato O’Ward last Sunday with Rosenqvist scoring his maiden INDYCAR win. Those determined competitors brought tremendous delight to the crowds in Elkhart Lake and no question we’ll expect the same in front of the Iowa crowd on back-to-back nights.

Speaking of young guns, let’s not already forget Alex Palou’s break through weekend. He had a podium last Saturday and responded quite well with a seventh-place finish, putting him ahead of Rinus VeeKay by eight points in an already intense Rookie of the Year battle.

While those young guns had strong performances, some veterans crumbled as pit stops woes and over aggressive maneuvers in the eyes of a few competitors defined their troublesome weekend.

Scott Dixon won the first race in Elkhart Lake to go 3-0 in 2020, but the next day wasn’t too kind for the five-time champion. He ended up stalling his car (not once, but twice), eliminating him from the fight and would up 12th.

Team Penske had a rather miserable weekend in Elkhart Lake. Although Will Power ended up second in the first race, the rest of the time was simply rotten luck. Last Saturday’s pole sitter Josef Newgarden stalled on pit road after dominating the first half of the race. The next day, Newgarden was the only Penske entry to finish in the top-10 with a ninth-place result.

Even tensions began to build up as both Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal took a tremendous hit in the championship trail due to Power’s aggressive driving. Power has spoken with both drivers over the Lap 1 ordeal and all three are at peace.

In a time period where no driver can afford a mulligan if they want to compete against Dixon, Iowa is dire straits for those guys not putting themselves out of the title hunt and further prove the veterans can still go.

Nonetheless, Dixon still has a comfortable 54-point lead over Colton Herta and 63 over co-third-place holders O’Ward and Simon Pagenaud.

Unlike last year where a string of early exits denied Herta opportunities of strong results, this season has been the opposite as a quiet campaign could become a potential chase for the championship after Iowa.

However, ovals hasn’t been real kind to the 20-year-old as only a seventh last month at Texas remains the only time he’s ever finished an oval race. The rest has been plagued by accidents and reliability issues, but before those shortcomings, Herta has shown flashes of brilliance.

Now more than ever, Herta could use an even superb result where he’s no longer the quiet performer who’s been super consistent, but tame the competition and capture his first set of wins this season.

Aside from the battle between young vs. old, qualifying will be much different. Rather than the old fashion way of oval qualifying, the starting lineup for both races boil down to one session.

The opening lap will determine Friday’s lineup while Saturday’s will be based on the second lap of the session. Once the dust settles, the fastest opening and second lap will receive a championship point. Therefore, the stakes are high to put two flawless laps to get an excellent starting position for each race.

July has been a fascinating month for the NTT IndyCar Series, so don’t expect a downturn when the field of 23 cars navigate around the 7/8 mile oval under the lights this Friday and Saturday.

By the Numbers

What: Iowa INDYCAR 250s, NTT IndyCar Series Races No. 5 & 6 of 14

Where: Iowa Speedway – Newton, IA (Opened: 2006, first INDYCAR event was 2007)

When: Friday, July 17 & Saturday, July 18

TV/Radio: NBCSN 8:30 p.m. EST (Friday & Saturday) / Pennzoil INDYCAR Radio Network (SiriusXM Channel 211)

Track Size: 0.875-mile oval

Race Length: 250 laps, 218.75 miles

2019 Race Winner: Josef Newgarden – No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet (Started third, 245 laps led)

Track Qualifying Record: Scott Dixon – No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet (34.5588, 186.256 mph – July 11, 2014)

From the Driver’s Seat

Felix Rosenqvist – No. 10 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

“I think Iowa is probably going to be the peak of test for us drivers,” said Rosenqvist, who finished 14th in his lone Iowa start.

“Really, really hot. You never get a break in Iowa. It’s just going on and on and on. Yeah, that’s why we spent this past eight months training every day, hopefully get some payback.

“Honestly, these races with the Aeroscreen, how hot it is, as much as it is a normal race, it’s also a physical race in the car mentally to try to keep strong, keep focused with all the heat and all the physical strain.”

Josef Newgarden – No. 1 Team Penske Chevrolet

“It’s just one of those places that tend to fit my driving style, so I always feel great racing there,” said Newgarden, last year’s Iowa winner. “Speedways like Iowa can lead to a lot of close, wheel-to-wheel racing, so the guys have worked hard to put together a great car to help with that.

“I’m also looking forward to once again seeing fans at Iowa this weekend. They help provide different energy that all of us drivers feed off of, so we’re always happy to see them back at the track!”

Last Time at Iowa Speedway

Rain delays made last year’s race at Iowa the longest night of the entire INDYCAR season, including the 300-lap race starting under green/yellow conditions.

It didn’t damped the spirits of Team Penske, who locked the first three starting positions with Simon Pagenaud leading the field to green. The reigning Indianapolis 500’s time out front was short lived as Will Power took the lead in Turn 1 and led the next 46 laps.

Josef Newgarden started third, but wouldn’t start dominating the 300-lap race up until Lap 49 when he passed Power in Turn 1. Shortly thereafter, more rain persisted the 7/8 mile oval which brought out a rare red flag for over 30 minutes.

Fortunately, the race was able to continue and by Lap 66, more racing action unfolded but Newgarden was at a different zip code as he ended up leading 245 laps en route to his fourth and final win of his championship season.

Newgarden said his entire Penske squad being on top of things on car adjustments and running under the lights contributed to his Iowa dominance as his victory marked the second of his career.

“My guys were awesome on the Hitachi car. Team Penske, Team Chevy, I can’t thank them enough. We had three fast cars. I wanted to be the fastest. We succeeded tonight. The car was great,” said Newgarden. “You had to be good in traffic, and we were pumped for the guys. They worked really hard. It was nice to have it under the lights.

“I think if the weather didn’t come, we weren’t going to be under the lights. We just have to keep going. It’s early. This helps tonight, but it’s never enough. You never have enough points. We just have to stay on top of it.”

As for Power, who led 49 of 300 laps, had to serve a penalty for improper pit entry on Lap 263. Making things worse, a crash by Ed Carpenter brought out the fifth and final caution which eliminated Power from the fight. Consequently, Power finished a lap down in the 15th position.

“I went just a bit wide getting onto pit road and then you get into the marbles. Once you get your tires dirty, it is almost impossible to drive and I really had no chance,” Power on the pit penalty. “It was an unfortunate end to a pretty strong day for the No. 12 Verizon Chevy team. We jumped out to the lead early before Josef got around us. He was very strong tonight, but we definitely had a podium tonight before the pit road penalty.”

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Friday, July 17

  • NTT IndyCar Series Practice No. 1 (2:00 p.m to 3:30 p.m. – NBC Sports Gold)
  • NTT IndyCar Series Iowa INDYCAR 250 Qualifying (5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. – NBC Sports Gold)
  • NTT IndyCar Series Iowa INDYCAR 250 Race No. 1 (8:30 p.m. – 250 laps, 218.75 miles – NBCSN)

Saturday, July 18

  • NTT IndyCar Series Practice No. 2 (3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. – NBC Sports Gold)
  • NTT IndyCar Series Iowa INDYCAR 250 Race No. 2 (8:30 p.m. – 250 laps, 218.75 miles – NBCSN)

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From the Pacific Northwest, Luis is a University of Idaho graduate with a Bachelor's degree in Broadcasting and Digital Media and a three-time National Motorsports Press Association award winner in photography. Ever since watching the 2003 Daytona 500, being involved in auto racing is all he's ever dreamed of doing. Over the years, Luis has focused on writing, video and photography with ambitions of having his work recognized.