NEWTON, Iowa - With most of the NASCAR world focused solely on Charlotte and Saturday night's All-Star Race, the Nationwide series has the Iowa Speedway all to itself.
As if Ricky Stenhouse Jr. needed any more of an edge at Iowa.
Stenhouse won both Nationwide races at Iowa's .875-mile oval in 2011, beating Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards in May and getting shoved across the line by Edwards in August after blowing his engine just yards from the checkered flag.
But neither Edwards nor Keselowski are running in Sunday's race. In fact, the only Cup regular in the field will be Kurt Busch, leaving Stenhouse as the clear favourite at a track where he picked up his first and second career wins.
Stenhouse, the defending series champion and current points leader, will start third in Sunday's race. Elliott Sadler will start from the pole just a week after his heartbreaking finish in Darlington Speedway, followed by Sam Hornish, Jr.
Danica Patrick will start ninth.
"People ask me, 'What is it about Iowa?' I wish I knew. I'd be a little more confident coming in here," Stenhouse said. "We just had great race cars last year and didn't make too many mistakes and ended up in victory lane. So, we're looking to do the same thing."
It didn't take Sadler long to bounce back from a points-killing wreck at Darlington and pick up his second pole in three starts in Iowa.
Sadler was in the lead with five laps left in regulation when contact with Joey Logano sent him into the wall. Logano won the race and Sadler finished 24th, falling 23 points behind Stenhouse in the points chase.
Sadler believes the lack of Cup drivers in the field could lead to more conservative racing, if only because Cup drivers who aren't eligible for the points race have less to lose than Nationwide regulars.
"It says a lot about our race team. There's a lot of things that made last weekend a bad weekend. My mom was there. My wife and kids were there. All my family was at Darlington, and I thought we had a really good chance to win the race," Sadler said. "We go from having a good chance to win the race and being close to the points battle with Ricky to now being 23 points behind. So, I mean that was tough."
For Patrick, Iowa represents a chance to get out of the spotlight — relatively speaking of course— and to continue her progress in NASCAR after an eventful weekend in Darlington.
Patrick pulled double duty in her first trip to one of NASCAR's toughest tracks, finishing 12th in the Nationwide race and 31st in the Sprint Cup race.
Stenhouse told Patrick during a press conference on Saturday that last weekend was probably the toughest one she'll ever have, to which Patrick replied, "Thank God."
"I think Darlington was one of those weekends that could have confirmed opinions or sort of develop new ones for people, and I think it was more the develop new ones than it was to confirm maybe if someone didn't think I was doing a good job," Patrick said. "It was a little bit of a confidence booster."
Patrick has more experience at Iowa than any driver in the field, having run the track five times with the IndyCar series. But beyond knowing that the bump in the second turn is less of an issue for stock cars than open-wheel cars, Patrick said her experience here doesn't mean much at all.
"It doesn't do anything, to be honest," Patrick said. "It's a totally different line, feel, and the car is just a different car so it reacts differently."
Michael McDowell will start fourth in the No. 18 Toyota, and Austin Dillon was the top qualifying rookie in sixth.
Darrell Wallace Jr., the promising young driver for Joe Gibbs Racing, qualified eighth for his first Nationwide race. Busch will start 31st.