Sam Hornish Jr. leads career-high 167 laps en route to dominating Nationwide Series win at Iowa Speedway

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Like a runaway freight train, Sam Hornish Jr. was hooked up like he was on a rail, leading 167 of 250 scheduled laps to dominate and ultimately win Sunday’s Get to Know Newton 250 NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Iowa Speedway.

Making only his second of seven scheduled starts this season in the NNS for Joe Gibbs Racing, Hornish had the strongest car, holding off runner-up Ryan Blaney by .699 seconds.

“I knew this would be a great opportunity for me,” Hornish said. “I know it’s seven races, but it’s also seven chances to win, every time you get into the car.”

Hornish finished fifth at Talladega in his first start of the season for JGR two weeks ago, and Sunday’s performance just verified Hornish’s offseason decision to forego a return to Penske Racing and instead move to JGR.

“It’s just awesome,” Hornish said of his first career win on a short track (Iowa is a .875-mile D-shaped oval). “To get out there and get in this car seven times a year, we take advantage of it. We got a pole at Talladega, finished fifth and then we did what we had to do today.

“When it got down to the end of the race, I just drove my guts out to try and get us a lead. It was just an awesome day.”

The 167 laps Hornish led are a NASCAR (both NNS and Sprint Cup) career-high for him in a single race.

There were just three leaders and nine overall lead changes in the race, which had just five cautions for 31 laps.

Blaney, who essentially replaced Hornish at Team Penske after last season, led 81 laps, but following a final restart with 20 laps remaining, he just couldn’t catch Hornish.

“We weren’t good enough on new tires,” Blaney said. “We took off way too tight. … Just too much to bear there with the 54 on new tires. … It just wasn’t enough.”

Regan Smith finished third.

“We were just struggling all day long for clean air,” Smith said. “We had two of our (JR Motorsports) cars in the top five (teammate Chase Elliott was fourth). You can’t be mad about that.”

One day after graduating from high school, Elliott retained his lead in the standings, slightly increasing his edge from one to two points over Elliott Sadler and Smith, who are tied for second.

“We just kept having to play catch-up all day,” Elliott said. “This Nationwide Series is tough. Our program needs a little work. We’ll go back and work on it and get ready for next week at Charlotte.”

Sadler was happy for Hornish, his JGR teammate, but not so much for his own fifth-place finish, especially since he wasn’t able to finish ahead of Chase Elliott or to overtake him for the NNS points lead.

“A top-five finish was not what we wanted, but it could be worse,” Sadler said.

Sixth though 10th were Brian Scott, Michael McDowell, Ty Dillon, Trevor Bayne and Landon Cassill.

Eleventh through 20th were Dylan Kwasniewski, Brendan Gaughan, Chris Buescher, Chase Pistone, Austin Theriault, Ryan Reed, Ryan Sieg, J.J. Yeley, James Buescher and Ryan Gifford.

Going back to the standings, Elliott, Sadler and Smith are starting to turn things into somewhat of a runaway, as Dillon is fourth (35 points back), followed by Bayne in fifth (36 points back), Brian Scott in sixth (-64 points), Gaughan in seventh (-97), James Buescher in eighth (-110), Chris Buescher in ninth (-119) and Landon Cassill in 10th (-121).

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Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato welcomes ‘Baby Borg’ to the family

Photos: Michael L. Leavitt
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Takuma Sato cast a big shadow on the world of IndyCar racing last May when he became the first Japanese driver to win the Indianapolis 500.

But there was another shadow of sorts cast along with Sato’s Indy 500 win: he and the prestigious Borg-Warner Trophy, given to each year’s winner of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, are virtually identical in size.

The Trophy is the same height as Sato, 5 feet, 5 ¾ inches tall. And the respective weight of both the Trophy and Sato are the same: approximately 113 pounds.

Try putting that on a mantle in your house.

2018 BorgWarner Baby Borg Presentation to 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato and team owner Michael Andretti. 17 January, 2018, Detroit, Michigan, USA.
©2018, Michael L. Levitt

That’s why Sato was so happy to receive the Baby Borg Trophy — a miniature version of the Borg-Warner Trophy — Wednesday night in Detroit. It’s much more manageable for the mantle in his house: 18 inches tall and five pounds.

“It’s such an honor to win the Baby Borg finally, eight months after the race, it’s been an unbelievable journey,” Sato told NBC Sports. “It’s an unbelievable feeling to win the 500 and it has just gone on and on. It’s just a significant moment in my life. It’s been fantastic.

“Right now, I haven’t really decided yet (where he’ll put the coveted Baby Borg). It’s going to my home in Indiana right now. But of course, everybody wants to see it. After that, I haven’t decided, but I’m sure it’ll get a special place.”

Even though the Baby Borg is a pint-sized version of the real trophy that was presented to Sato in victory lane in Indianapolis last May, it also has the same meaning as the big trophy and served to get Sato’s excitement pumping to where he’s already counting down the days to the 2018 Indy 500.

And even more important, it will be the first time he returns to Indianapolis as the defending champion.

“(Winning the 500) has changed my life,” Sato told NBC Sports. “But what I do is exactly the same, to try and be as fast as possible when racing.

“But all the environment, the people, all the cheering and being called an Indy 500 champion, I never imagined how deep and how far it goes, just the power and energy that the Indy 500 had.

“I just never realized how much the tradition and the prestigiousness of it. It’s been fantastic and I’m sure when I go back there to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in four months as the defending champion, it’ll be a whole other dimension. I’m sure it’s going to be a whole lot of pressure, but I’m sure to enjoy the moment.”

Sato, who turns 41 on January 28, will return to the 500 this year, but with a new team. He left Andretti Autosport after last season and returned to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, for whom he previously raced for in 2012.

Now that he’s won one Indy 500, Sato wants to make it two in a row.

“It’s a huge, another task and a new dream,” he said. “I’m excited for the new season and to go for another 500 (win), it’s another completely new dimension. Like Michael (Andretti, who he drove for last season) said, obviously, we’ll be competing against each other in the new season, but tonight we celebrated together. I think it’s going to be a real good season for me. I’d love to get another win there, of course.”

2018 BorgWarner Baby Borg Presentation to 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato and team owner Michael Andretti. 17 January, 2018, Detroit, Michigan, USA.
Michael Andretti celebrates his 5 Indy 500 wins as a team owner, and Takuma Sato celebrates his first Indy 500 win
©2018, Michael L. Levitt

But not if Andretti has anything to say about it.

“He’s not allowed to win again,” Andretti laughed while also speaking to NBC Sports.

Sato enjoyed a victory lap of another sort last month when he accompanied the Borg-Warner Trophy to his native Japan for a two-plus week tour of the nation.

It marked the first time in the Trophy’s 82-year existence that it has ever been outside the U.S.

Everywhere Sato and the Trophy went drew large crowds, from Honda Racing “Thanks Day” at the Twin Rings track at Motegi to a visit to Mount Fuji, a meeting with 850 members of Sato’s fan club, and also included a two-day run in the atrium of Honda’s World Headquarters in Tokyo that had fans lined up for hours to see the Trophy and take photos of it and Sato.

“The reaction was just massive,” Sato said. “For myself, it was a dream come true, but at the same time, for a country with that history, it was an unbelievable moment, particularly the first time when Hiro Matsushita did it (drove in the Indy 500 in the 1990s) so many years ago.

“So many Japanese drivers have tried to win such a historic race, I was just so proud to be part of it. The people were really excited. The passion, I’m really particularly happy to bring it to Japan.

“To go to Japan was a massive commitment by from Borg Warner and Honda. So many Japanese fans were able to see it physically and now they’re really looking forward to this year’s Indy 500 again. It was a great moment to us.”