Seven days ago, Penske's Ryan Blaney had been left bitterly castigating himself for losing out on what would have been a famous NASCAR Xfinity Series victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to the wily and seemingly currently unstoppable Sprint Cup veteran Kyle Busch.
This weekend at Iowa Speedway, Blaney was clearly determined to make amends for that defeat from the moment that the green flag came out and set his sights on ensuring that no one would get between him and victory lane this time. Fate and circumstance would throw everything bar the kitchen sink at him before the finish finally arrived but Blaney held on, toughed it out and delivered on his promise.
“It doesn't make up for it," admitted Blaney of how this week's victory in the US Cellular 250 measured up against last week's disappointment. "But it sure helps forget about it!"
CLICK: Full NASCAR race results from Iowa Speedway
Joe Gibbs Racing's Daniel Suarez had earlier taken the opportunity presented by an absence of any moonlighting Sprint Cup Series regulars busy at Pocono to land his second Xfinity pole in 21 starts with a lap of 23.606s (133.441mph) on the seven-eighths of a mile Iowa Speedway. He was a slender 0.012s ahead of Blaney who was forced to accept second chair alongside him on the front row. Immediately behind them heading to the green flag were Richard Childress Racing team mates Brendan Gaughan and Brandon Jones.
As soon as the race began, Blaney made his declaration of intent by leaping to the front. Despite complaining that the #22 was loose, the 21-year-old then proceeded to lead for the entire opening stint of 75 laps under green before the first caution for debris. It was an impressive response to the disappointment of last week's last-lap loss at Indianapolis for which Blaney had severely (and somewhat unfairly) castigated himself.
Blaney also won the ensuing race off pit road to resume back out in front, with Regan Smith the big winner jumping up into second thanks to a great stop by the JR Motorsports crew putting him ahead of Suarez and Gaughan. Once the race got back underway Suarez briefly looked to have found the pace to threaten Blaney for the lead only to suffer a shredded right front tyre that forced him onto pit lane for an unscheduled stop just past lap 100, dropping him to 20th and off the lead lap. Gaughan meanwhile was now struggling for pace and fell away, meaning that at the midway point of the 250-lap race Blaney had a 1.3s lead over Smith and Roush Fenway pair Chris Buescher and Darrell Wallace Jr. now having taken up chase positions in third and fourth. The man on most conspicuously on the move in the first half of the race was JGR's Erik Jones, who after competing in the Camping World Truck Series race at Pocono earlier in the day had flown in to take over the #54 and was now up in fifth despite having to start from the back because of the pre-race driver change.
A new caution on lap 144 for debris following a tyre issue on the JD Motorsports #01 allowed the cars to pit for the second time, but a slow Blaney stacked the cars up and caught out Erik Jones who spun at the entrance to pit road. Although no harm was done to the #54, it cost him time and dropped him back to 14th place - fortunately still on the lead lap where he was able to contemplate an aggressive fuel saving strategy to make it to the finish. Meanwhile Regan Smith had won the race off pit road to lead at the restart on lap 151, although he found himself quickly dispatched by Blaney at the restart. Up to third was reigning Xfinity champion Chase Elliott in the JR Motorsports #9, but he had his hands full locked in a battle for position with Buescher, Gaughan and Brandon Jones.
With the sun setting and the temperatures cooling, handling conditions were changing rapidly meaning that no one was quite sure just how well their cars would continue to perform for the final 100 laps of the race - although Blaney's car still looked bulletproof and remained the class of the field regardless even as the floodlights progressively took over from daylight. The race was eventually shaken out of its increasingly fuel conscious stupor by a spin for Athenian Motorsports' Dylan Lupton with 47 laps to go which gave everyone the chance to top up on gas and dispense with the fuel strategies. Suarez finally got back on the lead lap as a result of the caution while Elliott won the race off pit road to lead the field back to green ahead of Blaney, Smith, Gaughan and Buescher. However it proved to be a short-lived affair before Kenny Wallace - in his final NASCAR race for JGR before retirement - spun out of 11th in turn 2 after contact with the lapped TriStar Motorsports car of Cale Conley forcing the rest of the field to scatter to avoid ploughing into them.
When the race went back to green on lap 214, Blaney immediately took back control of the race from Elliott whose gamble of taking two tyres while the rest had gone for a full set of fours conspicuously failed to pay off as he was quickly passed by Gaughan, Smith, Brian Scott and Erik Jones, and then by championship leader Buescher on lap 227 in a potentially significant moment for the 2015 title battle. Things went from bad to worse for Elliott moments later when Brandon Jones thought he'd also cleared the #9 and proceeded to move up the track prematurely, pinching both cars into the wall and triggering a fifth caution on lap 229.
"I'm pretty upset right now, that's all I'm going to say" said Elliott over the team radio as he headed to pit road for repairs. He was joined there by Jones but no one else from among the leaders was inclined to follow them: with just 15 laps remaining it was now all about track position not pit strategy, and the man holding the strongest hand was without doubt Blaney who was once again able to jump clear of the mass of cars competing for position at the restart. He looked to have done enough, but the race went back to yellow after Elliott's team mate Ben Rhodes was spun around by contact from Roush Fenway's Elliott Sadler on the frontstretch on lap 240 to set up yet another white-knuckle restart. This time Blaney could afford to hold nothing back in his bid to hold off Gaughan, Erik Jones, Smith and Buescher if he was to convert his race-long domination to a night time all-access pass to victory lane.
Gaughan gave it everything he had and went side-by-side with Blaney on lap 245 but ultimately couldn't make it stick. Once again Blaney pulled away from the field and it looked like he had done enough to seal the deal - only for Darrell Wallace Jr. to spin out while battling with Buescher and Kenny Wallace just before the white flag would have made it official. Instead the race headed into green-white-chequered overtime and this time Gaughan pushed it even further, ending up contacting the #22 when the race went green. The #62 got loose and dropped back while Blaney himself kept his foot down and raced his way out of trouble. But even this was not enough to hand him the win, as all the multi-car jostling further back ended up with Brennan Poole being sent for a spin in the HScott Motorsports #42. Buescher had also been caught up in the incident and dropped out of the top ten after being forced to head pit lane for minor repairs and new tyres.
A second GWC attempt followed, and this time the race went the final two laps and reached the chequered at last. Despite a bad tyre rub from his earlier contact with Gaughan it was Blaney who dug deepest: having led for 252 laps in total, he finally clinched his first win in 2015 and his third from 37 NASCAR Xfinity Series career starts.
"That was tough. I won a Truck race a few years back all on restarts and I didn't know if it was going to play out good," Blaney said as he celebrated on victory lane. "I knew we had a lot of left-rear damage. It felt like it. It was smoking the car a lot. I can't thank everybody on this Discount Tire Ford Mustang, they put together a flawless car."
His winning final margin was 0.321s over Regan Smith who notched up his best finish of 2015 in second place "He did a nice job with it,” Smith said of the race winner's compelling performance and the way he'd held up under extreme pressure at the end. "It looked like his car got tight and I just didn't have quite enough to get up to his fender to get a run on him."
Brian Scott pipped RCR team mate Ty Dillon for third. Gaughan held on for fifth ahead of Suarez, who had managed to recover from going a lap down to get back to sixth position and finish one spot ahead of JGR team mate Erik Jones with Sadler in eighth. and Elliott ninth. Rounding out the top ten was JD Motorsports' Ross Chastain who got into a post-race pit lane shoving and shouting match with Roush's Ryan Reed, while Kenny Wallace signed off his 26-year NASCAR career with 15th place in the last of 904 competitive outings across the three national-level championships.
By managing to work his way back into the top ten, Chase Elliott pulled off a stunning late-race reversal in terms of the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship battle by finishing ahead of points leader Chris Buescher who could only manage to recover to 13th place after his enforced late visit to pit lane. Even so, Buescher still has a 20 point lead over Elliott, Dillon, Smith, Sadler, Wallace Jr., Suarez and Gaughan. None of the top eight changed positions as a result of the outcome in Iowa this weekend.
Next weekend the Xfinity field goes road course racing, heading to Watkins Glen International for the Zippo 200 on Saturday August 8.
Full race results from Iowa Speedway, plus qualifying and practice speeds and updated Xfinity Series championship standings.
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