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Why Iowa Speedway holds special meaning for NASCAR champion Brad Keselowski



Why Iowa Speedway holds special meaning for NASCAR champion Brad Keselowski


When Brad Keselowski came to the middle of Iowa in the summer of 2009, he had just nine NASCAR Cup Series starts under his belt. With a surprise win earlier that year at Talladega Superspeedway, Keselowski had certainly become an intriguing name in stock-car racing. But flukes can happen at a wildly unpredictable track like Talladega, and he still sought validation and full-time employment at the sport’s highest level.

That’s why Aug. 1, 2009, would become such a memorable date for Keselowski. In the inaugural race at Newton’s Iowa Speedway for NASCAR’s second-tier series (then sponsored by Nationwide), with more than 56,000 fans in attendance on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, Keselowski outdueled Kyle Busch, one of the biggest names in motor sports, to collect the victory. To that point it was just the fifth NASCAR national series win for Keselowski in what grew to 76 in a certain first-ballot Hall of Fame career that also includes one Cup Series championship.

It’s no surprise then that 15 years later, as the Cup Series comes to Iowa Speedway for the very first time, Keselowski can detail specifics of that victory.

“Yeah, I remember a lot about it,” Keselowski, who at 40 years old is now a Cup Series veteran and team co-owner, told the Des Moines Register in a phone interview this week. “In my mind, it was a key win in my career that probably positioned me as much or equally so as my first Cup win, to land a Cup ride. So it was a big moment. A weekend I’ll never forget.”

Keselowski remembers that the Rusty Wallace-designed, 7/8-mile track with progressive banking was difficult to drive that weekend. There had been a lot of crashes in practice and certainly during the 250-lap race. His No. 88 Chevrolet, owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s JR Motorsports, was set up “on the edge,” as they say, to maximize speed by relying on driver ability. A lot of other crew chiefs preferred safer setups that made the car easier to drive.

“I was on pins and needles driving the car. It was what I would call twitchy,” Keselowski said. “I just kind of stayed cool.

“Our car had a lot of speed in it. I think Kyle’s was probably the opposite; his car drove really well and didn’t have as much speed. I was able to kind of pick him apart. He knew my car didn’t drive well, and he put me in positions to where it would have been really easy to crash.”

Despite being on older tires, Keselowski made a bold pass on Busch with eight laps to go and hung on through a late caution for the win. His life was forever changed. The following year, in 2010, Keselowski latched onto a full-time Cup ride for legendary team owner Roger Penske. In 2012, he secured his first (and still only) Cup Series championship.

Keselowski’s ascent to prominence in NASCAR via Iowa Speedway is one of many such stories.

Even though NASCAR hasn’t raced at Iowa Speedway since 2019, some of the biggest names in today’s Cup Series have race wins here. Joey Logano, one of only two current multi-time series champions in Cup (Busch is the other), got his second-ever NASCAR win in the first-ever NASCAR race held at Iowa Speedway in 2007, in the developmental ARCA series.

The robust list of previous Iowa winners is a who’s-who list that includes these 18 drivers of the 37 on the entry list for Sunday night’s Iowa Corn 350 (6 p.m. CT, USA Network):

Keselowski and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. have three second-tier series wins here (now sponsored by Xfinity); Christopher Bell has two. Ryan Blaney, William Byron and Erik Jones have won both Xfinity and Truck Series races here. Busch, Chase Briscoe, Chris Buescher and Ryan Preece have single Xfinity wins at Iowa. Austin Dillon and John Hunter Nemechek have single wins in the Trucks. In addition to Briscoe and Busch, six more current Cup regulars have at least one ARCA win at Iowa: Logano, Alex Bowman, Chase Elliott, Ty Gibbs, Todd Gilliland and Corey LaJoie.

Many other Cup drivers have experience at Iowa but not the wins.

That includes Toyota driver Bubba Wallace, who last raced here on June 19, 2016, in a ninth-place Xfinity Series finish.

“Not one damn bit does that help me,” Wallace told the Register, referencing his 276 NASCAR national-series races since then. “The track has changed. I have no idea what to expect.”

Wallace does think that the earlier-season results at Richmond Raceway could be an indicator of what’s to come at Iowa. Denny Hamlin, who has zero track experience at Iowa, won the spring race at Richmond’s 3/4-mile circuit. Series points leader Kyle Larson, who has fifth-place finishes in his two Iowa starts (both in 2013), was third at Richmond. Martin Truex Jr. is another Cup Series champion and veteran with no Iowa track experience.

Keselowski thinks drivers who have deep familiarity with Iowa Speedway will have an upper hand in the Iowa Corn 350.

“Absolutely. The repave of the track – I’m not going to say it’s inconsequential, but it’s still the same track,” Keselowski said. “It still has its quirks. It’s one of these tracks that’s progressively banked, which means your car placement is really critical. Track time is pretty valuable here.”

Keselowski arrives at Iowa Speedway with a lot of momentum in his No. 6 Ford that he co-owns, with five top-three finishes in his last eight starts, including a May 12 victory at the difficult-to-drive Darlington Raceway.

Keselowski was among three drivers who came to Iowa for a tire test three weeks ago, joining Larson of Chevrolet and Bell of Toyota. Bell, for what it’s worth, is the early betting favorite for Sunday’s race. Keselowski said his team learned a lot during that test and is eager to put those tweaks into action.

It would be quite the story if Keselowski could spin his Ford into victory lane Sunday night, in the first Cup race at Iowa Speedway – after becoming the very first Xfinity winner here 15 summers ago.

“It’s a race I’ve had circled,” Keselowski said, “since I got the phone call saying that Cup was going to race there.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has served for 29 years with The Des Moines Register and USA TODAY Sports Network. Chad is the 2023 INA Iowa Sports Columnist of the Year and NSMA Co-Sportswriter of the Year in Iowa. Follow @ChadLeistikow on X (formerly Twitter).

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