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By Luke Meredith | Associated Press
NEWTON, Iowa -- Sam Hornish Jr. went from nearly winning the NASCAR Nationwide Series season title to losing his ride.
Hornish reminded everyone Sunday that a lack of sponsorship funding is the only reason he’s not pushing for the champion again.
Hornish Jr., who finished second in the Nationwide Series in 2013, beat pole-winner Ryan Blaney off a restart with 21 laps to go and hung on to win at Iowa Speedway.
Blaney was second, followed by Regan Smith, Chase Elliott and Elliott Sadler in the first stand-alone event of the season.
Hornish, piloting the No. 54 car usually driven by Kyle Busch, led 167 of 250 laps to win in second start of the year for Joe Gibbs Racing.
“I got a lot of crap from people on Twitter wanting to know why I don’t have a full-time ride. But I’d rather be part-time in this car than full-time in a lot of others,” Hornish said.
Hornish, who drove for Penske Racing last year, opened his season as Busch’s substitute with a fifth-place finish at Talladega two weeks ago.
From the start of Sunday’s race, Hornish and Blaney were the only drivers in serious contention.
The 20-year-old Blaney began the race on the outside of the front row after winning his first series pole Saturday. But Hornish, who qualified second, pulled in front on the opening lap. Blaney and Hornish were the only leaders for the first 214 laps, and lapped traffic was often more of a concern that the cars directly behind them.
Blaney eventually caught Hornish at the tail end of a green flag run that lasted roughly 65 laps. But the final restart belonged to Hornish, who fell just three points shy of champion Austin Dillon a year ago.
“We had great long run speed after about 50 laps or so,” Blaney said. “We just didn’t have the new tire speed we needed.”
It was the third win in 101 Nationwide starts for the 34-year-old Hornish, who beat a field featuring three drivers aged 20 or younger in the top six starting spots.
“I keep looking in the mirror and I’m like, ‘I’m not that old.’ .. .and then Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott come up for driver introductions and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m getting older,’” Hornish said. “The older you get, the less opportunities you’re going to have in the future.”
Michael McDowell briefly took the lead with 30 laps to go by taking just two tires while the rest of the leaders took four. But McDowell’s gamble failed to pay off, and he settled for seventh.
Elliott finished the most hectic weekend of his young life with an impressive fourth-place finish.
Elliott, an 18-year-old rookie who has already won twice this season, graduated from high school in Georgia on Saturday morning and flew back to Iowa in time to qualify sixth later in the day.
Elliott’s crew hung his graduation cap and tassel on the No. 9 pit box for good luck on Sunday. But Elliott, like everyone else in the field, had no answers for Hornish or Blaney.
Elliott will take a two-point lead over Sadler and Smith in the series points standings to next week’s race in Charlotte.
“It was a lot of catch up,” Elliott said. “We had a few issues on pit row that we need to address, and hopefully we can have those fixed by next week.”