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June 13, 2024

Who might win Iowa’s Cup debut? Look at who’s (sort of) been there before

A photo that displays Ross Chastain, Brad Keselowski and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. next to each other

When NASCAR roars into Newton, Iowa, this weekend, it will mark the Cup Series’ debut race at 0.875-mile Iowa Speedway. That’s a pretty rare occurrence for an oval track: Iowa will join Nashville (in 2021) and Gateway (in 2022) as just the third new non-road or street course the series has christened since 2012.

But Iowa won’t be all new to every driver in the field Sunday. In fact, 29 of the 36 drivers on track have had at least one race here before — it’s just that it was in the Xfinity Series, which ran at Iowa every year from 2009 to 2019, or the Truck Series, which also saw the track as a fixture of its schedule for years. That means the winners’ list at Iowa contains some interesting names, from Brad Keselowski — winner of the inaugural Xfinity event 15 years ago — to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and William Byron.

MORE: Cup drivers with past wins at Iowa

Let’s run through the drivers in this week’s Cup Series field according to their past experience and performance at Iowa in the Xfinity Series — and what might help us predict who’s set up to have a big weekend.

Two drivers in Sunday’s field started eight races in the Xfinity Series at Iowa: Michael McDowell and Ross Chastain. While neither won a race there, McDowell scored a top 10 in all but one race he ran — the lone exception being the 2010 race, when he started 26th and finished 13th. McDowell hasn’t been the best short-track driver at the Cup level (more on that later), but he did everything except claim a checkered flag at the 0.875-mile track over his Xfinity career there.

Also among the most experienced drivers at Iowa are a pair of three-time winners at the track: Brad Keselowski and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who at one point had won 60 percent of all the Xfinity races ever held at Iowa. (As it is, they finished their original runs there with a combined 46 percent win rate.) And tied with Stenhouse at six Iowa starts in Xfinity are Austin Dillon, Bubba Wallace and Tyler Reddick, followed by Christopher Bell and Ryan Blaney at five apiece.

But maybe what we want isn’t so much drivers who’ve visited the track often as those who dominated during their appearances there. To help measure that, let’s turn to my Adjusted Points Index (Pts+) metric, which judges each driver based on how high they finish — wins are worth twice as much as a sixth- or seventh-place finish, which is worth double a 14th-place finish, and so forth — and then scales everything relative to an average driver. (Average is always 100, and higher is always better — so a Pts+ of 120 means a driver was 20% better than average, etc.) Here were the best drivers in the 2024 field during their Xfinity careers at Iowa, based on Pts+:

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his extensive history of cleaning up in lower-tier series, Kyle Busch was the best of this week’s field in terms of average performance at Iowa in the Xfinity Series. Busch finished second in the 2009 event after getting passed by Keselowski with nine laps to go; he then won the 2010 race in ridiculously dominant fashion, leading 209 of a possible 250 laps en route to one of his series-leading 13 wins that season. In terms of average performance, Busch and Keselowski were far and away the best Iowa drivers among those who’ll climb into a Cup car this weekend.

Others who put up notably strong performances in limited Xfinity Series action over the years at Iowa: William Byron (with a win in 2017 and another top-10 finish when the series returned later that season) and Harrison Burton (who scored a fourth-place finish during his lone Iowa start in 2019), along with — who else? — Kyle Larson (who finished fifth in both of his Iowa outings during the 2013 Xfinity Series season) and both Chase Briscoe and Chase Elliott.

How much will all of this matter this week? Well, every driver would tell you that it’s always good to have in-car experience at any new track. The data also tells us that Xfinity Series results can at least give us some sense of how a driver will do in the Cup Series at a particular site. To see this in action, let’s compare how Xfinity Series performance (as measured by Adjusted Points Index) carries over to the Cup Series at Richmond, the track that is most comparable to Iowa based on its length, shape and banking. Among those who had at least five starts in each series, here’s a plot of Xfinity versus Cup Series Pts+ at Richmond during the era in which the drivers also ran at Iowa (2009-2019):

While the conversion rate isn’t 1-to-1 — to get to an average predicted performance at the Cup level, you needed to be about 92% better than average at the Xfinity level — there is a surprisingly strong overall correlation there, if results from a very similar track are to be relied on.

So when thinking about who might do well at Iowa, it probably counts for something to be among our Cup Series drivers with the most — or best — Xfinity Series experience, even if they haven’t run on the track in at least five years. Of course, it also bears looking at results from similar short/flat tracks like Richmond — and to a lesser degree, New Hampshire, Phoenix and Gateway.

Overall short-track performance tends to be predictive at these types of races in general, which is why McDowell’s relatively stellar Xfinity record at Iowa stands out as a fascinating outlier. (At the Cup Series level, short tracks lag far behind road/street courses and superspeedways among McDowell’s best track types over the span of his career.) But nobody aside from Chastain has logged more races in a high-level stock car at Iowa — and that might give drivers like McDowell an important edge as Cup cars take to the track for the first time.

In the bigger picture, it also bears looking at Cup Series results from similar short/flat tracks like Richmond – and to a lesser degree, New Hampshire, Phoenix and Gateway – when trying to predict who will shine at Iowa’s Cup debut this weekend. So that means keeping an eye on the usual short-track suspects like Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Martin Truex, Jr., each of whom show up high in my track similarity-based Adjusted Points Index projection for Iowa despite never actually having driven there before in Xfinity or the Trucks. But there’s a decent chance guys like Busch, Larson, Bell, Keselowski, and even McDowell and Stenhouse outdrive their forecast based on their previous experience and success at the track.