It's only natural that the shortest track on the IndyCar schedule should create so much action. It's only 0.875-mile long, but it is also 60 feet wide – which means you can't indefinitely block a driver who has a faster car and one that can run anywhere on the track. If your rival has momentum and a decisive nature, he can slide under, or go around the top.
But that will only come from confidence, which is crucial on a circuit where you travel in a straight line for only four seconds of the 18 that it takes to lap the track at 185mph-plus. Apart from that short back straight, you're constantly turning into the 12-14-degree banked turns, and so caressing the car into corners while maintaining an almost gyroscopic energy becomes a necessity. Therefore a stumble over a backmarker can be very costly, and given the brevity of a lap, traffic is almost constantly a factor.
The other factor to bear in mind is the heat race format that will determine grid order yet which will take place in the evening of Saturday, and therefore at a very different track/ambient temperature to those likely to be encountered on race day. And if that seems puzzling, read on…
Following a 75-minute morning practice session, there will be single-car qualifying, the top six of who will transfer to Heat Race 3 and take the top six positions on the grid for it. In Heat Race 1, the even-numbered positions from one-lap quali, from eighth through 24th, will compete for two places in Heat Race 3. In Heat Race 2, the odd-numbered positions from one-lap quali, seventh through 23rd, will compete for two places in Heat Race 3.
Thus there will be 10 cars in Heat Race 3, and the finishing order of this race will determine the first five rows of the grid for the Sunday race. Behind those 10 cars, the results of Heat 1 will determine the even-numbered positions on the grid from 12th to 24th. The results of Heat 2 will determine the even-numbered positions on the grid from 11th through 23rd.
If you're still awake – and to ensure the drivers remain so and don't just drive around protecting their cars for the main race the following night, as per last year – there will be points awarded: nine for the pole winner, descending by one for each position and throwing in a point for 11th and 12th. Yup, bizarre though it is, in terms of points, qualifying at the Iowa Corn Indy 250 will be more important than at any other race bar the Indianapolis 500. Or to put it another way, starting 12th at Iowa, having outperformed only half of your rivals, will earn you the same number of points (one) as outperforming all your rivals to earn pole at St. Pete, Barber or Long Beach, etc. Forget bizarre; that's just dumb.
MARCO THE MAN
With four top-three finishes from his six starts here, including victory in 2011, Marco Andretti is probably the favorite at Iowa. His self-confidence is such that he usually cares little for qualifying here, and instead focuses practice time on chasing a race setup. It usually pays off and he comes storming through to the front at some point. For example, the race he won, he started only 17th.
Last year he had to give way to his charging teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay in the closing stages of the race, but after electrical issues cost him a shot at victory at Milwaukee last weekend, you can only imagine how determined Andretti is to score his first win of the season, and claw back some of his points deficit to RHR and championship leader Helio Castroneves.
Meanwhile, Hunter-Reay is looking as confident as we've ever seen him. His 162mph lap at Milwaukee on his first flyer after the final restart – almost 2mph quicker than any of his rivals – was not only crucial to his victory, it was also a great example of a guy at the top of his game. Now he's back on a circuit which last year yielded victory for him after crafting and grafting through the night with what was initially a mediocre-handling car. Ryan and engineer Ray Gosselin are surely going to start the weekend with as good a setup as they ended the race with last year, so the champ is going to be formidable.
The only driver on the grid this year with more than one Iowa win to his name is Dario Franchitti, who has led 428 laps of the 962 laps he's completed here. Last season, he finally nailed his first pole at this track, but failed to take the green flag after his engine blew up on the parade lap. No one, least of all Franchitti and teammates Scott Dixon and Charlie Kimball, needs to have it highlighted just how much the team is struggling with mechanical grip this year, but the 14-degree banking at Iowa can help mask these shortcomings, just as Milwaukee's relative flatness (nine degrees) emphasized Ganassi's troubles.
For Dixon, this is may prove to be a crucial weekend in his championship quest, because he's now 78 points off the points lead, and Iowa is the the 10th race of a 19-race season. At the very least, he's got to hope he beats Castroneves and Hunter-Reay.
KANAAN GUNNING FOR IT
If there's a track that rewards never-say-die attitude, then it's Iowa, and if there's a driver that epitomizes that same outlook, it's Tony Kanaan. His charge to third place was one of the highlights of last year's race and KV Racing has traditionally had a strong car here (remember E.J. Viso finishing third in 2010 and Takuma Sato taking pole in 2011). Kanaan's teammate Simona De Silvestro looked totally uncomfortable at Milwaukee, but she would have outqualified T.K. at Texas had she not had a 10-place engine penalty, so don't write her off on ovals as a whole.
HONDA TOP DOG
If Ganassi is once again struggling, expect to see Simon Pagenaud waving the flag for Honda at Iowa, because his performance here last year was remarkable. As a rookie at this unique track, he lost ground in the early-lap head-rush, and discovered that qualifying was a whole different game than racing here. But he not only didn't crash, he swiftly found his groove and stepped up his performance, stint on stint, until finally he was one of the quickest drivers out there and came home fifth.
It will be interesting to see not only his and the Schmidt Hamilton Racing team's progress from last year, but also to compare teammate Tristan Vautier's performance in his rookie season. The Schmidt Peterson driver at least has Iowa experience having raced here twice in Star Mazda and once in Indy Lights, but he didn't reach the podium in any of them.
CHARGERS UNDER THE RADAR
Another driver who impressed with his pace here last year was Alex Tagliani. Unfortunately it came after an initial blunder – a spin-and-stall on the warm-up lap! – and no less unfortunately, it ended with an engine blow-up less than 50 laps from home. But in between times, the No. 98 Bryan Herta Autosport car had been the fastest on the track, and made up the two laps it lost at the start. Could he be a contender for victory?
Also watch out for Justin Wilson, who loves short ovals and had the pace to finish top five at both Iowa last year and Milwaukee last week.
• On Saturday, practice starts at 11:45 a.m. ET, with one-by-one qualifying at 4 p.m..
• Qualifying Heat Races will be streamed live on www.indycar.com and the INDYCAR 13 app from 6:45 p.m. ET.
• Sunday's race coverage on ABC will begin at 2:30 p.m. ET, with green flag at 3:05 p.m.