Iowa a wild card for IndyCar gang

NEWTON, Iowa -- Bigger isn't always better, and that certainly holds true when it comes to the Iowa Corn 300, the 12th round of the Verizon IndyCar Series.

At seven-eighths of a mile, Iowa Speedway is the shortest track on the IndyCar schedule, and the anticipated crowd of about 30,000 for Saturday's race (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) certainly won't be the largest of the season.

But a crowd of 30,000 looks a lot more impressive in a 35,000-seat venue such as Iowa, rather than highlighting the vast expanses of empty grandstands when a slightly larger audience shows up at a much larger facility such as Texas Motor Speedway. The intimacy of a more packed-in (not to mention enthusiastic) crowd around a bullring-like circuit gives the Iowa race perhaps the best ambiance on the IndyCar calendar outside established classics such as the Long Beach Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500.

IndyCar has run at Iowa Speedway since 2007, but this is the first time the race has been pushed back two to three weeks from the usual June date into July. As such, the Iowa race assumes more importance in the countdown to the championship, which is setting up as a showdown between the three Team Penske drivers. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports' Simon Pagenaud ranks third in the title chase, but the Iowa race might be the best opportunity to elevate one of the Andretti Autosport drivers back into the mix.

Ryan Hunter-Reay (fifth in the standings) won at Iowa in 2012 in his championship season, and Marco Andretti (2011) and James Hinchcliffe (2013) are also Iowa winners. Tony Kanaan's win in 2010 for AA started a run of four straight for the team; Dario Franchitti won the inaugural '07 contest, also in an Andretti car.

Andretti (seventh in the points chase) and Hinchcliffe (12th) know that time is running out on their championship hopes but also realize that, based on their team's traditional dominance at the track, there's no better place to get a rally started.

"The cars that the team has had at Iowa have been really competitive since they started going there," Hinchcliffe said. "That gives the team a lot of confidence, but at the same time you can't rest on your laurels because you know everybody will have improved on their packages from last year and many teams tested there.

"Going back after my performance last year is something I'm looking forward to," he added. "But again, you go with these raised expectations because we did have such a good race and historically the team has had such good cars there. I have confidence in the guys that we can sort it out on Saturday night and repeat."

Andretti is coming off a frustrating run in the Pocono 500, where he fought hard to finish ninth after incurring an early pit road speed violation. But Hunter-Reay's day was even worse, as mechanical troubles sent him behind the wall for 19 laps and doomed him to 18th place at the flag.

Given the Andretti team's recent dominance on short ovals (Hunter-Reay also won at Milwaukee in 2013), the American star wishes there were an opportunity to score double points at one of those tracks, like the ones IndyCar offers on 500-mile superspeedway races and street course doubleheaders.

"We don't pay double points on the short ovals at all, and short ovals is what IndyCar is all about," Hunter-Reay said. "It started obviously at the Indy 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but the Milwaukee Mile is the oldest racetrack in the world. It's deep in IndyCar heritage.

"That's somewhere I think, if we're going to do a double-point race, that would be an ideal one."

Within the Penske team, the current storyline is the looming presence of Juan Pablo Montoya. After winning the season opener at St. Petersburg, Florida, Will Power has led the championship from the start, and Helio Castroneves' consistent campaign has allowed him to catch up to his mistake-prone teammate.

But Montoya -- with four consecutive top-seven finishes, including three podiums topped by his recent victory in the Pocono 500 -- has built a ton of momentum. Fourth in the standings, 55 points behind his teammates, the Colombian must now be considered a strong championship threat.

Castroneves, who moved into a tie for the series lead with Power with a second-place finish at Pocono, refuses to think ahead about the championship.

"I have been in this situation too many times before, so I'm not going to put too much emphasis on being tied for the lead," Castroneves remarked. "We still have a lot of work left to do, but to have a solid weekend at Pocono after a bit of a disappointing weekend in Houston is a confidence builder.

"Team Penske has not yet won a race at Iowa Speedway, but we've had fast cars. I feel like this could be the weekend."

Power admitted that solid performances at Iowa and Milwaukee are critical to his championship hopes.

"The short ovals are probably the weakest part of my game, but we ran really strong at Milwaukee last year, so I hope we are turning a corner with that part of the program," he said. "We're lucky that we are still tied for the points lead. The good news is that we are bringing fast cars to the track every week. When you have speed, you are always a threat to win."

Pagenaud, a two-time winner this season, is another driver who traditionally has not been at his best on short ovals. The Frenchman is 44 points behind Castroneves and Power.

"We've caught up a lot of points in the last three races, picking up 50 points on the lead," Pagenaud said. "We've been competitive everywhere, and I feel confident where we're sitting. The next few races coming up suit me well, and anything is possible at this point.

"We're right in the hunt with seven races left, and this is a very exciting time for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports."

Run as a 250-lap (218.75-mile) race from 2007 to 2013, the Iowa event has been lengthened to 300 laps (262.5 miles) this year. This is the third time the Indy cars will race under the lights at Iowa Speedway, but the heat race format to determine the grid the past two years has been abandoned in favor of traditional single-car qualifying.