Leistikow: An entertaining Cup debut proves Iowa Speedway deserves another shot in 2025

NEWTON − The inaugural NASCAR Cup Series weekend at Iowa Speedway drew magnificent crowds, side-stepped disruptive weather delays and delivered the sport’s biggest star, Kyle Larson, to the pole position – all setting the stage for Sunday night’s Iowa Corn 350.

All that was needed to complete a successful weekend was the delivery of an entertaining race.

Consider that box checked, giving Iowa Speedway the ample ammunition that it needs to be deserving of a return to the 2025 schedule in NASCAR’s premier series.

We saw just about everything Sunday night at what has been billed as the “Fastest Short Track on the Planet” since it was built into the Newton cornfields in 2006. From great racing to unpredictable twists to an Iowa-friendly winner, with Ryan Blaney – whose mother, Lisa, is from Chariton – taking the checkered flag in the longest-ever NASCAR race at Iowa Speedway.

Blaney, the reigning Cup Series champion, was one of the drivers who expressed prerace concern about how good the product would be Sunday night after a partial repave of the track. After leading 201 of the 350 laps, he was pleasantly surprised about what turned out to be three lanes of racing.

“I thought it was pretty racy,” Blaney said. “Honestly, it exceeded my expectations as far as race-ability. The crowd tonight was awesome. If that doesn’t make you want to come back, I don’t know what will.”

There are a lot of things that can make a race a bad or boring event. That could be a runaway winner. That could be a lack of passing, something that has plagued NASCAR on its short tracks in 2024. We saw neither of those problems Sunday.

Ryan Blaney, driver of the No. 12 Ford, was a popular first-time Cup winner at Iowa Speedway on Sunday night and advocated for a Cup return to Newton.
Ryan Blaney, driver of the No. 12 Ford, was a popular first-time Cup winner at Iowa Speedway on Sunday night and advocated for a Cup return to Newton.

Instead, we saw numerous lead changes in various ways – via door-to-door passing, via strategy and via bad luck, such as what happened to the pole-sitter.

Arguably the best car of the night, Larson’s No. 5 Chevrolet, was taken out in a multi-car crash on lap 220 that started with Daniel Suarez, whose No. 99 Chevy got into Larson’s, which slammed the wall and crashed into the No. 11 Toyota of Denny Hamlin.

Earlier in the race, Hamlin was a lap-down car and bumped Larson out of the way. This race even had that kind of drama, where two of the sport’s biggest stars were banging into one another, with Larson saying on the team radio, "What the (heck) was that for?"

Even after a frustrating night in which Larson finished 36 laps down, the two-time winner of the Knoxville Nationals – who is very familiar with racing in Iowa – thought the track delivered good racing.

“I felt like I could go anywhere and pass people,” said Larson, who dropped to the back after a tire issue and then charged from 30th to first to win Stage 2. “That really long run we had was a lot of fun. The lines were changing. The grip was changing and coming and going.”

The post-race chatter dug into the validity of the Cup Series coming back to Iowa. That won’t be known until maybe October. But the feeling among drivers is that Iowa will get a second Cup date in 2025, although that’s ultimately NASCAR’s call. Gov. Kim Reynolds was among the sellout crowd of about 45,000, signaling the state’s support for big-time racing in our state.

One of the post-race topics was how to make the product even better, specifically surrounding whether Iowa should repave the rest of the 7/8-mile track.

Christopher Bell, whose No. 20 Toyota was the fastest car by two-tenths of a second in the closing laps but settled for fourth place, had a strong message for Iowa Speedway president Eric Peterson and the NASCAR-owned track.

“I’ll say it time and time again, if we had been on the old pavement, it would have been an amazing race,” said Bell, a two-time winner here in the Xfinity Series before NASCAR stopped racing here after the 2019 season. "And I’m sure it was still good. But they definitely need to go ahead and repave the rest of the corners if not the whole track. Hopefully they repave it this week. That would be the best-case scenario, to give the track time to cure.”

Blaney disagreed, saying the track doesn’t need more repaving. His crew chief, Jonathan Hassler, thought the product was entertaining as is.

“I think the partial repave maybe isn't ideal,” Hassler said. “It certainly gives it some character, which we need. We don't need all the tracks to be the same. Like I said, still was able to have two grooves.”

Joey Logano, who finished in sixth place, had a more down-the-middle view. He said Iowa Speedway should repave the corners but leave the straightaways alone.

Still, the two-time Cup Series champion thought the product was a winner in the inaugural race here.

“It doesn’t really make much sense the way they did it,” Logano said. “But the good thing is it didn’t seem to affect the racing a whole bunch. Some tracks you can be two-tenths faster than the field and you can’t pass the car in front of you. So, there were options here.”

Brad Keseloswki, who finished 10th and has been a longtime advocate of Iowa Speedway as a three-time winner here, was certainly disappointed that he didn’t seriously contend. But he had praise for the track and the fans who poured in.

“We weren’t as good as we wanted to be today, but it was a good race. A lot of side-by-side racing,” Keselowski said. “Good battles for the lead, all the way through the field. About all you could ask for, for an inaugural race weekend.”

There’s no guarantee NASCAR, which wants to expand internationally and get back into California, comes back here. More upgrades are probably in order, including an operable press box. But the consensus among national media here was that it was the best short-track race of the last few years.

Count the race winner among those who hope Cup becomes an annual event in Newton.

“Yes, I hope they have a Cup race here next year,” Blaney said. “ I hope we come back here for a long time.”

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 Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Entertaining Cup Series debut proves Iowa Speedway deserves 2025 race