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NASCAR’s Cup Series is coming to Iowa, but it’s not the same track its drivers remember

NEWTON, Iowa – Christopher Bell is excited that the NASCAR Cup Series will be at Iowa Speedway for the first time.

Heading into Sunday’s race, the 0.875-mile track isn’t quite the track he remembers.

Bell has seven top-five finishes in nine starts at the track in NASCAR’s other series, including two wins in the Xfinity Series.

But the track will look different this weekend after partial repaving in the corners. The top-to-bottom racing that has characterized the track in the past may no longer be there for Sunday’s 350-lap race.

“If we were on the old sidewalk, I think it would be a great benefit,” Bell said. “But with the redevelopment we have, it’s essentially a new race track. I really think it’s anyone’s ball game.

An estimated 40,000 fans are expected for Sunday’s race. Tickets for Saturday and Sunday sold out in the spring, and Friday’s Cup and Xfinity practice and an ARCA Menards Series race were nearly sold out.

The first Cup race is an achievement after years of trying to get on the schedule at the track.

The track, designed by NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace, opened in 2006. The IndyCar Series held its first race at the track in 2007, and NASCAR’s Xfinity and Truck series came to the track in 2009.

NASCAR bought the track in 2013 to save it from financial troubles, but it seemed destined to close after the COVID-19 pandemic, when it only hosted an ARCA Menards Series race in 2021. But the IndyCar Series, which skipped coming to the track in 2021, returned with doubleheaders in 2022 and 2023 that drew near-capacity crowds.

NASCAR then announced last fall that the track would have a Cup Series race this season, as well as a return of the Xfinity Series.

Eighteen of the drivers in Sunday’s field have at least one victory at the track in one of the other NASCAR series.

“I walked up here and felt like it was a lot bigger than I remembered,” said Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who won three Xfinity Series races here. “I felt like it was quite a small short circuit, but you obviously get going quite quickly here.”

“It’s still Iowa, but it’s not the same Iowa,” said Chase Briscoe, who won the track’s last Xfinity Series race in 2019.

Bell felt the same melancholy.

“I miss the old Iowa,” he said.

Kyle Larson starts on pole after setting a fast lap of 216.458 km/h. Ryan Blaney came in second at 136.311.

Saturday morning’s rain wiped out Xfinity Series qualifying and forced NASCAR to change Cup Series qualifying. The drivers competed in two groups, with the top five from each group filling the top 10 qualifying spots.

Larson was the last driver to complete qualifying.

“It helped to finally go,” Larson said. “I’m sure the track got a little bit better.”

Joey Logano was 16 years old when he competed in the first race at Iowa Speedway and finished 40th in a Hooters Pro Cup event. He was not surprised by the reception the Cup drivers received this weekend.

“They love it,” said Logano, who won at the track in a K&N Pro Series race less than a year later. “I noticed that 20 years ago or whatever it was, when the stands were packed for a Pro Cup race. So you can imagine what it’s like to win a cup race. I joked and said, ‘I don’t know where all these fans come from, there’s a lot of cornfields here.’ It looks a bit like the Field of Dreams.”

Corey LaJoie will get some attention from Iowa fans because of his color scheme. LaJoie’s No. 7 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet bears the Tigerhawk logo of the University of Iowa sports teams.

Gainbridge is LaJoie’s primary sponsor, and former Iowa women’s basketball player Caitlin Clark, who has her own endorsement deal with Gainbridge, mentioned LaJoie’s car in a video released on social media Friday.

“I know I’ll be rooting for the black and gold car,” said Clark, the reigning national player of the year who finished her college career as the NCAA’s all-time Division I leading scorer. She was the No. 1 pick in this year’s WNBA draft.

AP NASCAR: https://apnews.com/hub/nascar-racing