The Iowa Speedway race track is the shortest on the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar at 0.894 of a mile.
The race distance, correspondingly, is the longest in terms of lap count at 300 laps.
And thus, surviving the bullring and staying on the lead lap are keys to success in the 13th of 16 races in the 2015 season (LIVE, Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra).
The challenge of the race in the land of the corn fields is summed up thusly by Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves:
“Now we go to a really fast place in Iowa. It’s our smallest oval but, man, it’s really fast,” he said. “You have to really stay alert because you are in traffic a lot. One slip and you can easily find yourself behind the wall losing a lot of points.”
With IndyCar now entering the final quarter of the season, it’s points that are more crucial now than they have been at any other point in the year.
Iowa, traditionally a midseason race, now plays a bigger role in the championship than it otherwise has in past years – fitting, I guess, since we’re on the verge of an election year given its placement in the electoral cycle.
Juan Pablo Montoya can afford to be defensive, as he enters with a 54-point lead on Scott Dixon. He can’t lose the lead in this one race and provided he banks another top-five finish, it will be hard for Dixon, or for that matter Castroneves, Graham Rahal or Will Power, to make up significant ground.
However, if Montoya has an encore of his race-ending accident here last year when he collided with Ed Carpenter, it suddenly opens the title race back up to the remainder of the top five. From Dixon to Power is separated by just 16 points.
Realistically, if Montoya’s lead stays in the 30-40 point range coming out of Iowa, he’s in very good shape, and if he manages to extend it, it further reduces the chances of the double points finale at Sonoma next month playing a major impact on the title chase.
As for Iowa itself, it could play similar to Milwaukee in terms of car handling and setup off the transporter being vital to success.
The schedule is a little more spread out with two practice sessions today, and qualifying leading into the race on Saturday. Again, having qualifying on the same day will reduce the marketing and promotional impact for the polesitter, and it may jumble the grid if teams opt to focus on race setup ahead of their qualifying runs.
Andretti Autosport enters the event on a five-race win streak in Iowa, with Tony Kanaan (2010), Marco Andretti (2011), Ryan Hunter-Reay (2012 and 2014) and James Hinchcliffe (2013) having banked the wins.
Carlos Munoz is the only Andretti driver with a win this year, while Andretti himself has had a very solid season, particularly since the month of May in Indianapolis. Hunter-Reay, who hasn’t won since this race last year, is in the midst of his toughest season with the team since joining in 2010, and enters the weekend 14th in points with just one top-five finish.
Somewhat surprisingly, Team Penske has never conquered Iowa Speedway. Andretti Green and Chip Ganassi Racing won the first three editions from 2007 to 2009, while Penske’s drivers have yet to pick up the checkered flag here.
They don’t necessarily need to change that statistic this weekend given their respective places in the title; however both Power and Simon Pagenaud need good, top-five results. Power had five top-fives in the opening seven races and has only one in the last five; Pagenaud had two in the first three, and only one in the last nine.
Ganassi’s quartet features Kanaan, who should have won this race last year, Dixon, who is yet to win in Iowa, Charlie Kimball, who hasn’t done great here, and Sage Karam, who has four Mazda Road to Indy wins at the track ahead of his first IndyCar start here. Karam was impressive in Milwaukee and could really play spoiler this weekend.
Hottest driver in the field at the moment is Rahal, another who’s done well recently but hasn’t at Iowa much in his history. Expect that to change this weekend.
And then there’s Milwaukee winner Bourdais, who parlayed an excellent strategic call from the KVSH Racing pit box into ridiculous mid-race pace en route to his second win of the season.
Josef Newgarden should be a contender, fresh off his maiden pole last week, provided his car handles better in traffic. Teammate Ed Carpenter also looks for his first top-five run of the year after his first top-10 of 2015 in Milwaukee.
Schmidt Peterson’s pair of Ryan Briscoe and James Jakes need a result after a double DNF in Milwaukee; as ever, the Foyt, Herta and Coyne teams will look to surprise if they can improve their qualifying pace. BHA rookie Gabby Chaves and past Iowa polesitter Takuma Sato are two to watch from that group.
The action kicks off later today with first practice.