NEWTON — In May, the race for the win at Iowa Speedway came down to the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing car vs. the No. 22 Penske Racing for the win.
For that matter, it’s been the No. 54 vs. the No. 22 regardless of who’s driving each car everywhere this season, evidenced by their 1-2 position in NASCAR Nationwide owner points.
Last night in the U.S. Cellular 250, it was another Gibbs-Penske showdown in a repeat of May, but this time it was the No. 22 of Brad Keselowski who came through with the win — his second straight U.S. Cellular 250 victory after winning last fall.
“These wins, they’re not easy to come by,” Keselowski said. “Both teams (the 54 and 22) are setting a bar that’s just incredibly high right now in the Nationwide Series. You win and finish second and it feels like you don’t even gain any points on each other. And that’s really astonishing to me.
“The two teams are just setting the bar that high.”
Sam Hornish Jr., who won the American Ethanol 250 at Iowa Speedway in May ahead of Ryan Blaney in the No. 22, led 65 laps and was consistently in the top two with Keselowski.
A caution with eight laps to go left Hornish and his team with a tough decision over two or four tires on the final pit stop. Hornish was one of only two cars in the top 10 to take four, and dropped from second to seventh for the green-white-checker finish. He made it to fourth, but ran out of time to run down Keselowski, who held off second-place finisher Michael McDowell.
“There just wasn’t enough time (at the end). We were there, either ahead or in the mirror of the 22 all night, and we felt like our best opportunity to beat him was to take (four),” Hornish said. “If our adjustment with the next to last stop had been what we needed, we probably would’ve taken two (on the final stop). But we had abused the left front tire so much, that if we’d taken two, there was no guarantee we would’ve finished.”
He said earlier this week he was actually happy when it was announced that Keselowski would be in the car, as he wanted to beat that car at its very best.
Though it may not have been the finish he wanted, Hornish said it was clear he and Keselowski were the best cars, and it illustrated just how strong those teams have been all season.
“It says a lot (about our teams),” Hornish said. “A lot of people were asking me about Brad coming here and running, and you want to beat the best guys when you have that opportunity to. I felt like we were pretty close to being able to do that today. Obviously it wasn’t the finish we wanted, but to run as well as we did was good, and we put up a good fight. It’s frustrating because for most of the race I felt like we were one small adjustment away from being able to beat those guys.”
McDowell, who tied his best career finish with second, briefly had the lead after the restart. As a teammate to the No. 54 in his select races in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20, he sees how good the team is first hand.
And just to be able to give one of the two dominant teams of the night a run for their money in the late stages was worth it — even if he was happily frustrated with second.
“I think the reason those cars run good is they’re not putting slouches in when Brad and Kyle aren’t driving them,” a smiling McDowell said. “Those guys are closers. It’s hard to beat Brad on a restart, so if you did it, you did something special. I got real close and just didn’t close the deal.”
Keselowski’s win likely gives the 2012 Sprint Cup champion a walk off, as he said after the race he likely won’t run another Nationwide race at Iowa Speedway.
The stable of young talent at Team Penske means other drivers will get more opportunities. Add in the logistical factor of travel time for the driver of the Blue Duece in the Cup Series, and it adds up to the end for him in Newton, barring a Cup date fans want so much.
“Yeah, I would probably guess that (it’s my last trip),” Keselowski said. “We’ve got strong drivers coming up in the development crop. This isn’t a race that Penske circles and says, ‘We want to send a Cup driver.’
“It’s just the way it works right now with our development drivers running the truck series, that the race is a conflict and it schedules out the way it does for me to be here. I’ve enjoyed the success I’ve had here, and I think it’s important to me personally to see drivers get opportunities like that and I know we’re working towards that at Penske.”
Cedar Rapids natives Landon Cassill and Joey Gase finished 13th and 24th respectively. Cassill rolled off eighth on the final restart, but said he got pinched down and lost several positions. He will run the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Pocono today.
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