NEWTON, Iowa -- It was one of the best -- and perhaps most overlooked -- drives of the 2018 season. While James Hinchcliffe crossed the finish line under caution at Iowa Speedway, Spencer Pigot was right behind him, having charged from an 18th-place start to a runner-up finish.
What made his come-from-behind run noteworthy was the backstory. Pigot, whose career foundation was built on road courses, was racing on Iowa Speedway’s seven-eighths-mile oval for the first time with the NTT IndyCar Series.
Of the 16 tracks the series visits, nothing is like Iowa Speedway. It’s wickedly fast for a short oval; a 20-second race lap will get you lapped quickly. Other cars are always in front, beside or behind. The only breaks for drivers come during cautions. And then there are the track’s characteristic bumps and typical heat -- temperatures at the 7:10 p.m. ET start of Saturday’s Iowa 300 are expected to be in the upper 80s.
“Physically it’s really tough -- mentally as well,” said Pigot, whose only previous experience with the demanding oval was an eighth-place finish in an Indy Lights race in 2015. “It’s non-stop. There’s no straightaway where you can take a breather or think about anything. You’re kind of always in a corner and around another car, trying to either defend or pass. It’s really tight racing. You have to think ahead and position yourself properly to make a move. It’s intense.”
Intense as it is, Ed Carpenter Racing has a knack for the place. Pigot’s finish last year extended the team’s streak of podium finishes at Iowa Speedway to four. It also has a five-race streak of finishes in the top five at Iowa, dating to Ed Carpenter’s fifth-place finish in 2014.
“We’ve been successful here over a pretty broad range of aero kits now,” said Carpenter, who will drive the team’s No. 20 Chevrolet for the third time this season. “Some of it just comes down to the process of how we do things, but it’s definitely a very challenging track to get the setup right. It’s tight, it’s bumpy, and it’s variable in where the bumps are. It seems like it changes from year to year, like a lot of tracks in the Midwest that are affected by winter and summer.”
After a difficult qualifying run put Pigot on the ninth row for last year’s race, he knew he had something strong once the race began. But it wasn’t until the end of his first stint -- when the car didn’t fade as the tires wore down -- that he knew he could contend.
“I felt pretty strong right off the bat,” he said. “But I think our biggest strength was being quick over the course of the entire stint. I felt we made a lot of progress over the second half or the final third of a stint, which is really important. … Right away, you get a feeling if you’re going to be good or not, but the most important thing is how you go over a full stint. That first stint is a preview of hopefully what to expect if you have a good car.”
The team’s podium streak at Iowa began with Josef Newgarden’s runner-up finish in 2015. It continued with Newgarden’s victory in 2016, JR Hildebrand’s runner-up effort in 2017 and Pigot’s charge from the back last year. The most pressing challenge to finding that consistency is adapting to Iowa Speedway’s constantly changing conditions.
“It’s not like we come here with the exact same setup every year,” Carpenter said. “We understand what the car needs with the bumps to make it comfortable. That’s the hardest part. We’ve had bad runs and bad sessions here. You see that every year here. Good cars will turn bad in the race. It’s such a quick lap. If you don’t have a car that you can be aggressive with, you can fall behind quick with a 19-second lap. You have to have something you can drive and move around with and handle all the bumps and different lines.”
If recent history is an omen of future success, one or both ECR drivers could be up front as the final laps count down Saturday night.
“When you have a car that’s able to run up and down the track, whether it’s high or low, it makes life a lot easier when you’re trying to pass people and work your way through lapped traffic,” Pigot said. “That was the real key for us last year. I felt comfortable in the car and was able to have a good race. It just seemed natural.”
NTT P1 Award qualifying is today at 2 p.m. ET on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network. Saturday's Iowa 300 is at 7 p.m. ET on the same platforms.