NEWTON, Iowa — Chase Elliott is in the midst of one of the best rookie seasons in NASCAR Nationwide series history.
The race Saturday at the Iowa Speedway could go a long way in determining whether Elliott ends such a promising year with a title.
Though Elliott has three wins in 19 races this season, his points lead has been reduced to just four heading into this weekend in Iowa. Elliott has finished outside the top five in four of his last five races. This week he learned that his crew chief, Greg Ives, is leaving to fill the same position on Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Sprint Cup team in 2015.
Elliott said he isn't worried the impending departure of Ives will be a distraction to the No. 9 team, which remains on track to make Elliott the first rookie to win a NASCAR series title.
"I was joking with him when I got here," Elliott said. "I said 'I knew you didn't like me, but I didn't know I was going to run you off that fast.' It's cool, and it's good to joke about. It's nothing that's heated, where we have to worry about us being mad at each other or anything like that. I'm happy for him. He knows that.
I have no doubt in my mind that he's going to continue to his job to the best of his ability. I don't think I have anything to worry about there."
As one of the rare stand-alone events on the Nationwide schedule, the annual August race in Iowa has often been a showcase for series regulars.
Brad Keselowski could threaten to overshadow all of them.
Keselowski again will be the lone Sprint Cup driver in the field, and his runs on Iowa's .875-mile track suggest that he'll be the runaway favorite.
Keselowski has won twice in four Nationwide races here, including last year and in the inaugural event in 2009.
Sam Hornish Jr. also should be a driver to watch, even though he's only racing part-time this season in Kyle Busch's No. 54 car.
Though Regan Smith hasn't been able to replicate the midseason form of finishing in the top 10 in six straight races, he's just four points behind Elliott.
Elliott Sadler is 11 points off the pace, with fellow rookie Ty Dillon 15 points behind Elliott in fourth place.
Dillon built off a season-best fifth-place finish at Chicago with his first career win last weekend at Indianapolis. He, like Elliott, is hoping to become the first rookie to win the series championship.
"I felt like we've had a chance all year," Dillon said. "We kind of had a slower start than what we wanted. I think now we're starting to pour it on. It's all starting to click as a team, and I think if we can continue to win races, the points will come."