Drivers pass the grandstand at the start of the NASCAR...

Drivers pass the grandstand at the start of the NASCAR Xfinity Series auto race, Saturday, July 29, 2017, at Iowa Speedway in Newton, Iowa. Iowa Speedway, which opened in 2006, gets its long awaited NASCAR Cup Series race on Sunday, June 16, 2024. Credit: AP/Charlie Neibergall

NEWTON, Iowa — Christopher Bell likes that the NASCAR Cup Series will be at Iowa Speedway for the first time.

Heading into Sunday's race, the .875-mile track isn’t quite the one he remembers.

Bell has seven top-five finishes in nine starts at the track in NASCAR’s other series, including two wins in the Xfinity Series.

But the track has a different look this weekend after a partial repaving in the turns. The top-to-bottom racing that was a characteristic of the track in the past may not be there for Sunday’s 350-lap race.

“If we were on the old pavement, I feel like it would be a big advantage to have," Bell said. "But with the repave we have, it’s essentially a new racetrack. I really think it’s anybody’s ballgame.”

An estimated 40,000 fans are expected for Sunday’s race. Tickets for Saturday and Sunday were sold out by the spring, and Friday’s Cup and Xfinity practice as well as an ARCA Menards Series race were nearly sold out.

The first Cup race is an accomplishment after years of the track trying to get on the schedule.

Chase Briscoe does a burnout after winning a NASCAR Xfinity...

Chase Briscoe does a burnout after winning a NASCAR Xfinity Series auto race, Saturday, July 27, 2019, at Iowa Speedway in Newton, Iowa. Iowa Speedway, which opened in 2006, gets its long awaited NASCAR Cup Series race on Sunday, June 16, 2024. Credit: AP/Matthew Putney

The track, designed by NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace, opened in 2006. The IndyCar Series held its first race at the track in 2007, with NASCAR’s Xfinity and Truck series coming to the track in 2009.

NASCAR purchased the track in 2013 to save it from financial problems, but it seemed destined for closing after the COVID-19 pandemic, when only an ARCA Menards Series race was held there in 2021. But the IndyCar Series, which skipped coming to the track in 2021, came back with doubleheaders in 2022 and 2023 that drew near-capacity crowds.

NASCAR then announced last fall that the track would be getting a Cup Series race this season, as well as a return of the Xfinity Series.

Eighteen of the drivers in Sunday’s field have at least one win at the track in one of NASCAR’s other series.

Chase Briscoe does a burnout after winning a NASCAR Xfinity...

Chase Briscoe does a burnout after winning a NASCAR Xfinity Series auto race, Saturday, July 27, 2019, at Iowa Speedway in Newton, Iowa. Iowa Speedway, which opened in 2006, gets its long awaited NASCAR Cup Series race on Sunday, June 16, 2024. Credit: AP/Matthew Putney

“I walked out here and I felt like it was a lot bigger than I remembered,” said Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who won three Xfinity Series races here. “I felt like it was a pretty small short track, but obviously you get going pretty quick here.”

“It’s still Iowa, but it’s not the same Iowa,” said Chase Briscoe, who won the last Xfinity Series race at the track in 2019.

Bell had the same wistfulness.

“I miss the old Iowa,” he said.

Larson up front

Kyle Larson will start on the pole after posting a fast lap of 136.458 mph. Ryan Blaney was second at 136.311.

Saturday morning’s rain wiped out Xfinity Series qualifying and forced NASCAR to alter the Cup Series qualifying. Drivers went out in two groups, with the top five in each group filling the top 10 qualifying spots.

Larson was the last driver to go through qualifying.

“It helped to go at last,” Larson said. “I’m sure the track was getting a little bit better."

If you build it

Joey Logano was 16 years old when he competed in the first race at Iowa Speedway, finishing 40th in a Hooters Pro Cup event. So he wasn’t surprised at the reception the Cup drivers have received this weekend.

“They love it,” said Logano, who won at the track less than a year later in a K&N Pro Series race. “I noticed that 20 years ago or whatever it was when the stands were packed for a Pro Cup race. So you can imagine what it’s like to get a Cup race. I joked around, I said, ‘I don’t know where all of these fans are coming from, there are a lot of corn fields out here.’ It’s kind of like the Field of Dreams.”

Hawkeye State

Corey LaJoie will get some attention from Iowa fans just because of his paint scheme. LaJoie’s No. 7 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet is carrying the Tigerhawk logo of the University of Iowa’s sports teams.

Gainbridge is LaJoie’s primary sponsor, and former Iowa’s women’s basketball player Caitlin Clark, who has her own endorsement deal with Gainbridge, made note of LaJoie’s car in a video released on social media on Friday.

“I know I’ll be rooting for the black-and-gold car,” said Clark, the reigning national player of the year who finished her college career as the NCAA’s Division I all-time scoring leader. She was the No. 1 pick in this year’s WNBA draft.

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