At Iowa, young drivers take the spotlight
July 12, 2013, Brad Norman, NASCAR.com
NEWTON, Iowa -- Drivers rave about the design here at Iowa Speedway, noting how deep you can come off of Turn 1 and how the high-degree banking throughout the oval gives this place the feel of an intermediate track.
They praised the surrounding Midwest area -- lush, green farms surround the track for miles -- and even eyed the thick stalks of corn growing at the front of the track for Saturday night’s American Ethanol 200 presented by Enogen (8:30 p.m. ET, SPEED).
The most important aspect of Iowa Speedway for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race this week, though, is a simple number: 0.875. As in, how long the oval is in miles.
That distance means drivers as young as 16 can compete because the track is less than 1.1 miles, and it also means defending race winner Ryan Blaney has to worry about his record falling.
Blaney’s win here last fall made him the youngest victor in series history at 18 years, 8 months and 15 days. Chase Elliott and Erik Jones (both 17 years old) are entered in Saturday’s race; Elliott won a K&N Pro Series East race at Iowa when he was 16, and Jones led the field in the first practice Friday.
“Going out and winning the race, that’s what’s on my mind,” Blaney said Friday. “I don’t really look at that other stuff. That’s cool that Chase and Erik are both entered, but I’d just like to keep winning.”
If Blaney is to repeat, it won’t be with the same truck that carried him to Victory Lane last year, when the driver led the final 50 of 200 laps.
That was Blaney’s first win in one of the three NASCAR national series. It was also the first victory as an owner for Brad Keselowski, who put Blaney in his team’s No. 19 Ford entry.
The reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion opted to keep that truck on display at the shop as a memento.
“I wanted to try and keep that truck, even when the manufacturer changed (from Dodge to Ford), I thought we could have kept it and switched it out to a Ford body,” Blaney said. “Brad wanted it to save that truck and put it up since it was BKR’s first win. I would love to have that back. I still think we have a truck just as good as that one, or maybe better, though.”
Elliott’s K&N Series win at Iowa as a 16-year-old was his first in a NASCAR sanctioned event.
The son of “Awesome” Bill Elliott has turned heads with his steady demeanor both on and off the track, a combination of which led to Rick Hendrick signing the wunderkind to a developmental deal.
Elliott, driving the No. 94 Chevrolet this week, has finished sixth, fifth and fourth in succession in three Camping World Truck Series races in 2013.
“I don’t really approach it any differently than I do other races,” Elliott said of being back in a national series race. “Obviously you’re on a bigger stage on a bigger level with some tougher competition with some guys that are really talented. Everybody is here for a reason. That’s why it’s hard.”
Elliott and Jones are the only drivers who can break Blaney’s record, but Saturday night’s race will be full of youngsters. Of the 35 drivers on the official entry list, eight are 20 or younger, including full-timers Jeb Burton (Turner Scott Motorsports) and Darrell Wallace Jr. (Kyle Busch Motorsports). Fourteen of the 35 are 23 or younger, including defending series champion James Buescher (Turner Scott Motorsports).
Series points leader Matt Crafton, who leads Burton by 22 points, says there’s one difference between this crop of young drivers and the others who have come up through the years.
“I think there’s always been a good group of young drivers, but not a good group of young drivers in great equipment like there is this year,” said Crafton, age 37. “In previous years there have been really good race car drivers, and … they haven’t always been in the best equipment. At end of the day, if you’re not in good equipment, you’re not going to run up front.
“If you put any of these rookies in a 15th-place truck, they’re going to run 15th to 10th. They’re not going to get into the top five; I don’t care how good they are. The thing is, all of these rookies now are in great, great equipment, and that’s what’s making them stand out so much.”