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Hornish Jr., Blaney duel in final laps at Iowa

May 18, 2014, Brad Norman, NASCAR.com

The final showdown between the drivers came during a two-caution span nearing the end

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NEWTON, Iowa -- Iowa Speedway is a 0.875-mile oval that has the length of a short track and the speed of a superspeedway. That unique combination has led to some of the best racing -- and battles for the lead -- in recent NASCAR Nationwide Series memory.

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Sam Hornish Jr. and Ryan Blaney added to that ever-growing list with their duel Sunday afternoon in the Get to Know Newton 250 presented by Sherwin-Williams. Hornish's No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and Blaney's No. 22 Team Penske Ford were the class of the field, as evidenced by the drivers combining to lead 247 of 250 laps.

Hornish, who started second, earned his first victory of the year -- and first ever in the No. 54 Toyota -- by leading 167 laps, including the final 22. He was never lower than third in the race with a car that had incredible short-run speed. Blaney, who started on the pole, led 80 laps --including a stretch of 60 from Lap 90 to Lap 149 -- and finished second with his car coming to life the longer a run went. Hornish passed Blaney for the lead four times, while Blaney returned the favor thrice. 

"It was two great cars," Hornish Jr. said after the customary Victory Lane soaking. "I could never really get far ahead of (Blaney) throughout the day, so I wanted to see if I could gap him a little bit to get exactly where I needed to be so I could try and take care of the equipment a little better. I could get it to five-to-seven car lengths and kind of stayed there, but the longer it went, he was able to close the gap." 

The result was tight racing along the top groove of the Rusty Wallace-designed track, with Blaney routinely just one-tenth of a second behind during their many encounters. And while the conclusion lacked the suddenness of Trevor Bayne catching Austin Dillon last year, or the spectacle of Carl Edwards blasting Ricky Stenhouse Jr. across the start/finish line after Stenhouse's engine exploded coming out of Turn 4 on the final lap in 2011, it was a technical battle that was undecided until late when pit-stop strategies and caution flags played their role. 

"He was definitely better than us on new tires for about 30 laps," Blaney said. "I was way too tight short-run to go. I couldn’t really get to him and kind of ran out of laps." 

The final showdown came during a two-caution span at the end. Blaney and Hornish both started behind Michael McDowell (who took two tires) on a Lap 219 restart, but they were running 1-2 when the caution flag fell two laps later for Mike Bliss' wreck. 

There was no doubting the next move -- Hornish Jr. barreled by Blaney on the outside on Lap 229 and pulled away. 

"When we had the first restart there toward the end, we got almost two full laps of green-flag running before caution came out, and I had a really good run on the 22," Hornish said. "I think I would have passed him right there if the yellow didn't come out, so I felt good about the last restart. I think our car, as far as the short run goes, it was just about as good as it was all day on that last run." 

It was an emotional afternoon for Hornish Jr., who lost his full-time ride with Team Penske after finishing second in the Nationwide Series last year. He has run two of seven scheduled races in the No. 54 with Joe Gibbs Racing -- his next is at Road America -- with finishes of first and fifth.

"Selfishly, I want to be a race car driver, and I want to go out and be on the track every weekend," Hornish said, his voice choked. "But it's not always about what I want. As far as my obligations as a husband and a father, this year has allowed me the opportunity to do some things I haven't been able to do in the past couple of years. 

"It's been a blessing to be with this team, and we'll see what opportunities come in the future."

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