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Ryan Blaney wins NASCAR Cup Series Iowa Corn 350 at Iowa Speedway

NEWTON — Ryan Blaney won the Iowa Corn 350, the first NASCAR Cup Series race at Iowa Speedway, on Sunday in front of 80 friends and family members.

Early in the weekend, there were concerns that a repeat of all four corners would limit passing and create a dull show for the Cup Series debut at Iowa Speedway. Instead, fans were treated to tight racing on a postcard-perfect evening, with drivers having to negotiate multiple lanes in the corners on the 7/8-mile circuit.

Blaney’s mother is from Chariton, about an hour southeast of Des Moines.

Kyle Larson won the pole for Sunday’s race on Saturday with a time of 23.084 seconds. It was Larson’s 20th pole in 347 Cup Series starts.

More: NASCAR Iowa Corn 350: Recap of today’s Cup Series race at Iowa Speedway

Corey LaJoie in the No. 7 car made Iowa Hawkeye fans happy this week. LaJoie is sponsored by Gainbridge, which also sponsors basketball star Caitlin Clark. LaJoie paid tribute to Clark and the Hawkeyes by wearing a Tigerhawk logo on his hood. But LaJoie ran into trouble early when his Spire Motorsports teammate Carson Hocevar contacted teammate Zane Smith on Lap 3 and spun LaJoie. But LaJoie remained in the lead and slowly climbed the leaderboard after installing new tires.

Larson dominated the first part of the 70-lap first stage, lapping Denny Hamlin for about 35 laps and taking a three-second lead over Blaney. But Blaney sat out the first set of pit stops after AJ Almendinger blew a tire and triggered a caution on lap 51 after hitting the wall in turn one.

Entering the night, Blaney was ranked 14th in the playoffs, 47 points ahead of Chase Briscoe in 17th. Larson restarted 31st after the pit stop, but moved up 21 places in about 20 laps at the start of the 140-lap second stage.

On lap 172, Hamlin kicked Larson in turn two after Larson appeared to miss pit road on the previous lap. Daniel Hemric issued a caution on lap 183 after hitting the wall. After the restart on lap 188, Larson cruised to an easy victory on the second stage.

But on the subsequent restart of stage 3, Daniel Suarez came into Larson’s left rear as they exited turn four, sending him into the wall. Larson then reported steering problems caused by a bent toe joint to his team. The incident also involved Hamlin, who had a tire mark on his left side from Larson’s car.

Despite repeated skepticism, multiple lanes are emerging

Going into the weekend, drivers and analysts speculated that the bottom lane would be the dominant lane in the corners, as all four corners had been partially repaved. A second lane was created, alleviating these concerns and creating overtaking opportunities.

Christopher Bell, driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, said during a tire test in May that he was concerned that passing would be difficult due to the increased grip added to the track by the repaved sections. NBC analyst Steve Letarte also worried before the weekend that passing would be difficult, saying, “Passing is going to be very difficult.”

In round 239, Letarte let America know how happy he was with the song on the USA Network broadcast.

“There have been more three-wide races than any short track I have seen,” Letarte said during the broadcast.

Throughout the night, fans were treated to exciting battles more reminiscent of much longer tracks, such as Iowa Speedway’s sister track in Kansas City, Kansas. On lap 94, Hamlin battled three wide with John Hunter Nemechek and Harrison Burton in turns three and four. A round later, Hamlin was still battling Nemechek in the corner.

It wasn’t always easy to pass. On lap 159, LaJoie and Austin Dillon were battling for position when LaJoie nearly sent Dillon into the Turn 3 wall as Dillon attempted to complete the pass.

Later, after a restart on lap 188, Chase Elliott got into a dogfight with Josh Berry as they battled for second place.

NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace, a commentator for the Motor Racing Network, designed Iowa Speedway. On MRN, Wallace said he was excited by the action on the track.

“Two, three, four wide lap after lap,” Wallace said on MRN. “They are all over the track.”

The tire gremlins persist

During practice on Friday, several teams punctured their front tires after just 20 lap runs. Xfinity Series teams use very different tires with different rubber compounds, but suffered similar tire failures on Saturday.

Almendinger was the first victim of tire failure on Sunday when his right front tire blew on lap 51, sending his No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet into the wall in turn one.

Michael McDowell blew a tire on lap 115, but the race stayed green. Smith also blew a front right on lap 129, but the race remained green. Chastain blew a right front tire on lap 165 but kept it out of the gate and the race stayed green.

RFK Racing’s Chris Buescher, No. 17, came in 16th, 32 points behind Blaney. Buescher won an Xfinity Series race at Iowa Speedway in 2015. But his unlucky season continued. Buescher lost the closest finish in NASCAR history to Larson in May at Kansas Speedway. A week later, Tyler Reddick wrecked them at Darlington Raceway while battling for the lead late in the race.

On Friday, Buescher said he believed he could win anywhere and hoped for a good weekend.

“We show up at the track with a chance to win, whether that’s Sonoma on a new paved course, whether that’s Kansas or a big unknown in Iowa this week,” Buescher said Friday.

NASCAR happy with presence

Thousands of fans gathered halfway in front of the main stands five hours before the race started. As the day went on, the smoke from tailgaters in the air only grew stronger. When the Cup Series garages opened, throngs of fans stared at the cars as mechanics greased the tires and fired up the engines before wheeling the cars to the starting grid.

NASCAR officials said repeatedly throughout the weekend that the series is pleased to have a presence in Newton. Fans in parking lots came from across the Midwest with license plates from Missouri, Nebraska and Michigan, to name a few states.

Sunday’s Cup Series race sold out before tickets officially went on sale to the public. Saturday’s Xfinity Series race sold out months ago. Friday’s ARCA Menards Series and Cup Series practice day was also nearly sold out. The grandstand seats only about 24,000 spectators — small by Cup Series standards — but with temporary suites and camping capacity, the track held about 45,000 spectators, according to Matt Humphrey, NASCAR’s senior director of trackside communications.

On Saturday, rain canceled Xfinity Series qualifying and postponed the start of Cup Series qualifying. But overall the weekend saw few delays. On Sunday, temperatures were above 90 degrees on a sun-filled day for racing in the middle of farmland.

Fans in the Newton Club and suites in the middle of the track performed two card stunts before the race, one with the American flag and another with the words “Thank You Fans.” As the flag turned green, thousands of fans waved hats and stood on their feet.

Team Penske’s Joey Logano said the drivers are feeling the energy during the race, and he said Iowa needs to stay on schedule.

“When the fans show up, we have to be there,” Logano said. “If the fans don’t show up, we’ll probably have to go to another track. Normally the fans will show up if it’s a good race, if it’s a good experience for them all the way through.”

Incidents

  • Round 3 – Spire Motorsports #77 Carson Hocevar got into Spire Motorsports #71 Zane Smith who turned Spire Motorsports #7 Corey LaJoie.
  • Lap 51-AJ Almendinger hits the wall in turn one after right front tire failure. No. 16 out.
  • Lap 81: Noah Gragson spun John Hunter Nemechek and Ty Gibbs in turn four.
  • Lap 183 – Daniel Hemric made contact with the wall exiting turn two.
  • Lap 221: Daniel Suarez sent Kyle Larson into the wall, who picked up Denny Hamlin. Kyle Busch also collected.
  • Lap 261: Chris Buescher blows out, hits wall.

Philip Joens covers retail and real estate for the Des Moines Register. He can be reached at 515-284-8184, [email protected] or on Twitter @Philip_Joens.