Notes of Interest

● After a trip to the West Coast this past weekend at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway, the NASCAR Cup Series heads to America’s Heartland for its inaugural race this Sunday at Iowa Speedway in Newton. While the track is new to the Cup Series, it is not new to NASCAR. The .875-mile oval located less than 40 miles east of the capital city of Des Moines played host to the NASCAR Xfinity Series and NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series from 2009 through 2019, holding a total of 33 races (20 Xfinity Series races and 13 Truck Series races). NASCAR has been absent from Iowa since 2020, with this year providing a welcome return to a track many in the industry have come to love. The D-shaped oval was designed by NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace, and its similarity to the .75-mile Richmond (Va.) Raceway is no coincidence. Wallace claimed Richmond as one of his favorite tracks, and when he joined Iowa’s design team in 2003, Wallace used Richmond as his baseline. Iowa features variable banking, with the turns banked between 12-14 degrees, the frontstretch at 10 degrees and the backstretch at 4 degrees. Construction of Iowa began on June 21, 2005 and the facility made its public debut on Sept. 15, 2006 with a Hooters Pro Cup Series race during which driver Woody Howard became the track’s first victor. ARCA Menards Series races followed in 2006 and the IndyCar Series joined Iowa’s lineup in 2007.

● Despite the NASCAR Cup Series having never run at Iowa Speedway, Noah Gragson is a veteran of the track. The driver of the No. 10 Bass Pro Shops/Winchester Ford Mustang Dark Horse for Stewart-Haas Racing has made four starts at Iowa – two in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and two in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. He has never finished worse than sixth to earn an average result of 4.5.

● In Gragson’s two NASCAR Xfinity Series starts at Iowa – both of which came in 2019 (June and July) – the Las Vegas native finished sixth and fourth, respectively, completing all the laps available.

● In Gragson’s two NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series starts at Iowa – which came in 2017 and 2018 – he finished sixth and second, respectively. In the 2017 race, Gragson won the pole with a lap of 23.136 seconds at 136.151 mph. He was the only driver to crack the 136 mph mark, with Christopher Bell qualifying second, .059 of a second behind Gragson at 135.805 mph. Gragson led the race’s first 16 laps before finishing sixth. In Gragson’s Truck Series return to Iowa in 2018, he qualifying third and finished second, leading seven laps in between.

Noah Gragson, Driver of the No. 10 Bass Pro Shops/Winchester Ford Mustang Dark Horse

It seems like everyone is genuinely excited to race at Iowa this year. Why is that?

“I think everybody just knows how great of a racetrack Iowa is. When they designed that track, Rusty Wallace was involved with it, and he had emphasis on how that place was built and shaped, the amount of degrees of banking in the corner. What I love about that racetrack is that there are so many options for a driver. There’s a lot of character. It’s a progressive-banked racetrack, so you can take away a lot of distance running the bottom in the corner, but it’s flatter so you can’t go as fast, or you can get up against that outside wall – the further each lane you move up, the more banking. And you can run three- or four-wide around that whole track just because of the way it’s shaped, the way the banking is. It’s a perfectly designed racetrack to put on a great show for the fans. I always loved running up in that top lane up against the outside wall and felt like I could make a lot of speed there. It might be a little bit different with the repave. They repaved certain sections, so that’ll be interesting. But overall, they did a great job designing that racetrack. It’s obviously new on the schedule and Cup’s never been there, so there’s excitement there. I would say 95 percent of the Cup drivers have been to Iowa at least once in their career and just know how good of a racetrack it is and how fun it is to drive.”

You raced at Iowa twice in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and twice in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, never finishing lower than sixth. What do you need to be good at Iowa?

“It’ll be interesting to see with them repaving certain patches around the racetrack. The foundation of the track has definitely settled over time, and there are big bumps, especially over the tunnel in (turns) one and two. So it’ll be interesting to see when they repaved it, if those bumps are gone or they’re still there. I think getting through the bumps and being pointed and having your angle right for exit to where you’re kind of straight across the bump instead of pointed to the outside wall across the bump in the center of the corner is really key. And then, just having a car that’ll maneuver each lane, having good grip on the bottom, the middle or the top, where you could go different places. If your car’s only good on the bottom and you’re too loose to run the top, or if you’re good up top and you’re too loose or tight to run the bottom, it makes for a long day. So, having options to go to different lanes and having your car drive good is definitely key.”

You get a rare Friday practice session at Iowa. How helpful will that real-world track time be for you?

“It’s going to be really key to go out there and really maximize the practice at Iowa because it’s a new track for us in the Cup Series. We have no notes. Us drivers obviously have some experience there, but it’s so different in the NextGen car that we’re really going to have to figure it out pretty fast. There’s a little bit of time to make changes, but not a ton. It’s not like back in the day where you had three 50-minute practices and you could put in three or four different setups if you wanted to. You’ve only got 50 minutes and every minute on the track is valuable.”

Iowa is new to everyone, at least when it comes to racing there in a NextGen car. For someone who is still in the beginning of their Cup Series career and just 16 races into their tenure with their race team, does the newness help create a level playing field, as everyone is starting from square one at Iowa?

“It’s definitely an even playing field, an even opportunity going to that track, how well you hit it. But there is an advantage for the guys who did the tire test there (Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell). This year at North Wilkesboro, they repaved that place, and I wish we could’ve been a part of the tire test there. Those laps are definitely valuable for the guys who are able to go there and kind of fine-tune their setup because, when they go back there, the guys who have tested there, they know exactly where every crack, every bump, every seam is with the different patches that have been laid down. They’ve been able to massage their cars since the test, they’ve been working on changes and coming up with the best possible way to go fast. I wouldn’t say they have a huge advantage, but it definitely can’t hurt to go out there and get laps. We saw at North Wilkesboro, the guys who tested there – (Joey) Logano, he ran pretty dang good there. Other tracks like that where we’ve been to for the first time, people who have tested there run pretty good. I’m excited nonetheless, because I really love and enjoy that racetrack. It’s so much fun to drive.”

How helpful is the simulator in getting your mind to understand how Iowa drives in a Cup car compared to what you experienced there in Xfinity and Trucks back in 2017, 2018 and 2019?

“The Cup car drives so much differently. It seems like you used to have to mount a run and get your momentum rolling on the top side. When the tires would wear out, the bottom didn’t work as good. With us shifting and being so high up in the RPMs, when you downshift, you can run the bottom for a lot longer at a lot of these racetracks. You used to get so bogged down on the bottom because you’d slow the pace way down in the Truck or Xfinity car that you’d just naturally move up to keep the momentum rolling. I don’t entirely know what it’s going to be like. I assume the different lane options with the progressive banking will certainly help give us options, but I imagine the bottom will hold on a lot longer than it would in Xfinity or Trucks.”

Does Iowa have some tendencies of Richmond or other tracks where you’ve competed?

“It’s kind of its own animal. It’s shaped very similar to Richmond, but it has a lot more banking, it’s a lot wider and there are a lot of different bumps. It’s its own animal.”