Fitting that the quickest driver in qualifying to determine the heat race lineups for Sunday’s Busch Light Clash (3 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN) shared a name with the title sponsor. Kyle Busch topped the speed charts in the 36 car Busch Light Clash qualifying session with the Olympic cauldron ablaze in the east and the sun setting in the west, as NASCAR Cup Series drivers drove for bragging rights from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Busch, in his familiar No. 18 Toyota, circled the .25-mile short track with a time of 13.745-seconds on Lap 2 which was good enough for P1 overall.
“I’m on the pole for the first heat, but now I have to back that up and finish there,” said Busch, a two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion from Las Vegas. “It’s a big deal to win the heat races, so it’s important for you to start up front.”
The second lap was the money lap all night with the cooler night time conditions failing to provide enough heat in the tires to get enough grip. Even in the morning practice session, several drivers said that it took 7-8 laps before the car finally came in and that’s due to getting enough heat in these Goodyear tires to provide the grip levels it takes for top times.
It made qualifying very interesting as all 36 drivers were hanging it all out there. They had to. With the 23 car feature field being determined by four heat races and two Last Chance Qualifiers, on a track of this size, track position is everything.
In saying that, with 36 cars here this weekend and only 23 spots to the A-Main, 150-lap main event, 13 also won’t make it.
In order to make it, the top four in each heat race will stamp their names into the field. With nine cars in each heat, four move on, five won’t.
That’s why it was crucial to get in the top 16 of qualifying because that guarantees you a top four starting spot in your heat race.
So, while Busch was fastest, he shared the limelight with Tyler Reddick (13.761-seconds), Justin Haley (13.891-seconds) and Joey Logano (13.949-seconds) who all will start on the poles for the four respective heats.
Daniel Suarez (13.952-seconds) will start alongside Busch on Row 1 in Heat Race 1 as being fifth fastest while Cole Custer (13.953-seconds) will start alongside Reddick in Heat Race 2 in being sixth overall. Chase Elliott (13.954-seconds) and defending Cup Series champion, Kyle Larson (13.957-seconds) were seventh and eighth respectively and will start on the front row in Heats 3 and 4 respectively too.
Some drivers in precarious positions are Brad Keselowski (30th), Kurt Busch (32nd), Ross Chastain (33rd) and Martin Truex Jr. (34th). They’ll start 8th on back in their heats in which they’ll have to move up more than half of the spots and only have 25 laps to do so.
If they can’t, then they’ll be relegated to one of the two LCQ’s and have just 50 laps to finish in the top three. If they can’t, then they won’t advance onto the 150 Lap feature.
They’re going to have to make risky moves on Sunday afternoon. Almost as much of a risk to what NASCAR took by moving the Clash across the country to a football stadium.
See, the Coliseum primarily plays host to USC football on Saturday’s in the Fall. Now, in a span of around 30 days, the green turf that dons red end zones, has 9,200 cubic yards of fill and aggregate base material as well as 6,900 yards of asphalt track and apron paving laid on top of it to form a quarter-mile short track.
“When I walked in on Thursday through one of those tunnels to take a look at it, it blew me away,” Keselowski said on Saturday following practice. “Aesthetically this place is beautiful. To know that they did this in 30 days or less, I don’t know how they did it.
“It is funny because we have all these different things we try to do and then there is always a reason not to get them done. But when we really want to do them they get done. To build this right here in 30 days, as amazing as it looks, in this venue in probably not the most friendly of states to do it, is pretty impressive across all factions. I think the sport has a lot to be proud of.”
That statement was echoed by many drivers this weekend. They give massive credit to NASCAR to trying this out. Changing up a dying race that making it important again.
The Busch Clash had recently become the Busch Crash. Most, if not all cars in the field, would end up with crash damage which made the event very expensive for race teams.
The original concept for the Busch Clash was for a Sunday afternoon show a week before the Daytona 500 and to fit it all in during a half an hour TV window on CBS. Well, the race had become 55 laps longer than the inaugural event in 1979, in recent year, was as boring as ever until a crap show at the end.
It became as what Denny Hamlin called, “diluted.”
“Back then you had to, I think, you had to get a pole,” Hamlin said of the initial Clash. “I mean, that was the only way you get in and over time, if enough teams complain that they’re not a part of it, the rules get changed to make it to where more people can be included.
“Well, anytime you do that you dilute it. It’s not as special.”
He’s not wrong. He’s not wrong at all in fact. The Clash was diluted and was a tough sell to fans, team, drivers and most importantly, sponsors.
“I think we all were probably kind of getting to the point with the Clash in Daytona like we need to do something,” said Larson. “That race was kind of just going on, I feel like, to go on. It added a week of being in Daytona and I feel like it was kind of becoming all for what.”
The first segments were full of cars running in tow with one another. The second segment was run with cars trying to save fuel until the end, then having manufacturers pit together.
From there, it was the usual crash fest in the end. Just look at how the last one on the oval ended. We’d see a six car crash that was sparked by a block by Joey Logano with 10 laps left in regulation. Then, on the restart with three laps remaining in regulation, we saw a bizarre crash in the tri-oval between nine cars. From there, a crash on the first overtime restart when Hamlin cut a tire while leading, took out 10 more cars which was followed by a three car crash on the next restart.
That left six cars on track for the third overtime, one of which being a lap down.
So, I ask, why race for 75 laps when 65+ of them are run single file and we get every car crashed in the end?
I mean when you show up with 18 cars for this race and all of them have damage, there’s a problem. In 2018, 17 of the 20 cars crashed in one accident at the end before the rain fell too.
That’s 38 cars and 35 of them crashed in a two year span.
So, last year’s race was moved to the Daytona road course. It honestly failed to give this exhibition race a spark too.
Fox Sports 1 saw 1.577 million viewers for last year’s race. That’s down almost 1 million people as 2.455 million tuned into the 2020 Busch Clash. Granted, the 2020 race was on the oval and was held on a Sunday afternoon compared to a weeknight, it still shows that doing the same thing again in 2022 wasn’t going to be ideal.
With a race that was becoming a hard sell and lacking luster, spicing it up to unprecedented proportions was needed.
You can’t go back to the original Clash format because sponsors didn’t want to put millions in for a 20 lap shootout. The teams struggled to field throw away cars for a boring 75 lap race where 95% of it was a high speed parade.
So, what do you do?
NASCAR decided to spend the money instead. They put in over $1-million to move this race to a makeshift track in a football stadium. They changed the entire complexity of this event making it just that – an event.
“Well, typically the Clash in general is a hard race to sell sponsorship for just in general it’s a very short race,” Hamlin continued. “But certainly, this one, as much build up as it has enables you to put it on the schedule as a legit race that you know, you can, you could sell for what you would sell for a normal event.
“This format is certainly where you have to get in on your own merit. There’s only one provisional there’s no inclusion for someone that’s got high in this for that. It’s back to being, in my opinion, it’s gonna be the best 23 cars on the racetrack or the best 20 cars this weekend anyway, so certainly in my mind, it makes it more prestigious than just getting in on one of the 10 things that you can get in on.”
It gives the spark to the event back again and this weekend has already shown it.
“This is probably going to be the most highly rated Clash of all-time I bet,” Logano continued. There’s more people talking about the Clash this year than ever. Probably because we’re doing something different.”
“Let’s make it exciting and wherever this idea originated, obviously when this was first drawn up, I’m sure there were a lot of people that probably didn’t think it was possible,” Larson continued. “But I feel like it’s added a lot of excitement. It’s given our television partners something to promote differently than just us being at Daytona for another week. Also, it gives us an opportunity to not only have more eyes on this event, which is good; but also be able to promote the Daytona 500 through this event, which in my opinion, are two probably fairly major wins for everybody sitting here and that travel across the country doing this deal.”
Martin Truex Jr. agreed.
“The cool thing is that it’s going to be a lot of fun to do something new,” he said. “There’s a lot of excitement around it as well. I think everybody’s anxious to get on track and see what we can do. Hopefully it can be a fun event for the drivers.”
As far as what would make this a good event to make people want more?
“I guess it just depends,” Truex continued. “It sounds like the crowds going to be good. There’s a lot of attention on it. I think at the end of the day we want to put on a good show. We don’t want it to be lots of cautions and wrecks. Just not a lot of chaos. Just a good race to put on a good show with all the attention that it’s getting. There’s a lot of excitement around it. A lot different with the concerts, halftime and the break. We need to make sure we put on a good show.
“I hope it’s not a show where we go crash over everybody all day.”
Kevin Harvick though, well he says that he doesn’t think anything really matters what happens on track this weekend. NASCAR has already won.
“I don’t think you can screw it up at this point,” Harvick said. “The event is here. The race track didn’t fly up. Practice went good. The cars all made the corners. People were passing each other and as our good friend Jim Hunter would say, ‘You have to have cars that pass, Kevin’ to make a good race. When you look at everything that has happened, the amount of tickets and media passes and all the things — you can’t screw it up at this point. That is my opinion.
“The race doesn’t even matter.”
As far as what if the racing is chaotic? What happens if a hypothetical wall gets knocked down?
“Knock ‘em down,” Harvick said of that situation. “We will make them stronger next time. You already have everything in here and had practice and everything. You can not screw it up at this point. You can. You could screw it up, but we will just send you to all the haters on Twitter and they can lock your account down.
“The guts that it took for NASCAR to take the leap and try an event like this and then seeing how practice went and how smooth everything has gone. The doors that are open have been blown wide open now.
“I think as you look at this particular facility, the thing that I remember most about it are Mickey Thompson off-road trucks jumping out of the top over there. Motorcycles and those off-road trucks were what I watched here. Obviously it is an iconic site and I think for me, being close to home and knowing that I have a lot of friends and family that are just intrigued by the event. The intrigue of the event is really the most valuable piece of the event, not only for what we do as teams but for our sponsors and new fans and for the sport in general. This is the type of event that you need to blow it out of the water at the start of the season to get the eyeballs and the people and you guys to all show up because it is different. That is the world that we live in. We live in different and trying new things and having the guts to do it is sometimes hard to do but the rewards are pretty big on the other side when it works.”
So, will this be considered a success then? Will this work for the future?
NBC Sports is reporting that NASCAR agreed to a 3-year deal with the Coliseum and USC. The final 2 years (2023, 2024) are option years that NASCAR has until early May to make the decision on coming back the following year or not.
NASCAR is taking a large risk by doing this but can save face and find another venue for next year if this doesn’t work. If it does work? Well then they have endless possibilities since they can now hit urban areas in large metropolitan cities since football fields are all the same size.
Corey LaJoie says that if this truly is a success and they can do this anywhere, his vote is to go to the AT&T Stadium (the home of the Cowboys).
“It all depends on the footprint,” he notes. “If this model works then it can open a lot of doors for the future.”
Harvick agreed. He says that you can even do this in the middle of the year for an All-Star race too and rotate it around.
“For me, I look at the NFL and what they do in London and I look at the things that they do,” he said. “I think in order to really open doors, I think Wembley Stadium would be fun. I think everyone wants to do something but the weather has to be different. But this is something that you could put in the middle of the year and I think the All-Star race is definitely something that could learn something from this just because of the fact that it needs to be more like this instead of just at a 1.5-mile track that we go to all the time.
“It needs to have that intrigue and fun and atmosphere that goes along with an event that is different. I am of the opinion that I would never do this twice, but I know that I will probably get overruled after this happens. It is kind of like the Roval, the intrigue isn’t as much the second year. I would move it all over the place. If this goes like everyone thinks it will, it will just blow the doors open to opportunities and I would take them.”
Part of what makes this on track product work is this new Next Gen race car. The old car they say wouldn’t have been as friendly trying to get through the tight turns. This car, well it has a better turn radius and this weekend shows just how valuable this car is.
It can take them to much bigger heights in being able to race in places like the Coliseum that the old car couldn’t.
“For my standpoint, I thought the car turned the corner just better than I thought,” said Hamlin. “I mean, I think there was no way our old car was gonna make it around these corners. But this one, we talked about how it’s better for road course racing. These corners are very, very tight – tighter than anything that we have. It cornered quite a bit better than what I was anticipating.”
His new driver for this 23XI Racing team, Kurt Busch, agreed.
“The Next Gen car fits in an arena like this,” said the 2004 series champion. “I don’t know if the old car would have done this and been able to put on as good a show. It’s just working on the car.”
Ryan Blaney says that he feels like this new car has more grip than the old car.
“The tires are wider and it just has more grip on the track and it feels like you are going faster than you would have with the old car here,” said the Team Penske driver. “There are things that are similar and other things that are different. The steering is so quick here, when you get loose with the power steering system we have in these cars is not as smooth. It can kind of catch and be harder to correct and turn but I feel like these cars have more grip so you can really lay on the wheel and the tires will take it and not just chatter. The old car you had a lot of chatter with tires but these ones feel like they will take it a little bit more.
“There are certain things about it that are like more grip in the corner, you feel like you can drive it harder. I feel like it is a double-edged sword. You can drive it harder but the price you pay for driving it too hard and slipping is worse than what the old car was. So that is going to make it tough. It is easier to mess up in this new car I feel like. You will pay a bigger penalty when you do mess up. that part is really neat for me as a driver and makes it more challenging and will put more of an emphasis on being perfect throughout the race. That part is something really big that I have learned just running them at the tests right now. They handle different. It is hard to tell you what your butt feels when you are in the car, just the way it moves around and slides around. It is a different feel from that old car. We will get a better idea when we get in races and traffic and stuff and get 40 cars out there but there are a lot of things different and it will challenge drivers and teams to really be on top of their game at the start of the year. You will see who is on top of their game right away and you just hope to be one of those teams.”
Still, this is arguably one of the smallest tracks that NASCAR has ever raced on. Yes, they’ve raced at Bowman-Gray Stadium in the past and yes that track is the same size as this one, but that was dating before the Modern Era. This is now. This is a professional racing series conducting a race on a quarter mile track.
Is that too small?
“I would have to imagine that we’re right there,” Truex Jr. said. “This is probably about as small as you can make it but I don’t know. Until you get on the track and race it to see how it is, I think that it’s a big question mark. I’d say we’re on the small end of the spectrum.”
Chase Elliott though left a lasting impression in saying that speed isn’t the only thing that matters for a race.
“You don’t have to go fast to put on good racing either,” he says.
So far, he’s right.
Gates open at 10 a.m. PT and the racing begins at noon inside a facility that’s hosted Super Bowls, the Olympics and USC football.
Following the conclusion of the final last chance qualifier, Pitbull will perform a 45-minute concert, with the main event beginning shortly after 3 p.m. PT. Ice Cube will perform during the race break at Lap 75 and DJ Skee will spin throughout the day, creating a party-like atmosphere for NASCAR’s season-opening exhibition.
Back before the pandemic began, Auto Club Speedway was supposed to start a transition into a massive remodel of the 2-mile oval. Following the 2021 race, construction would begin to make the 2-mile track a half mile oval. It would be ready for the 2022 season.
Unfortunately, COVID halted those plans right in their tracks. 2021 never happened. NASCAR will come back at the end of this month for what most thought would be the final race on the 2-mile oval then work would begin on the transformation.
But, on Saturday, track officials and even NASCAR hinted that maybe those plans for a redesign of the Southern California race track wouldn’t happen after all. They’re non committed to those plans now and even went as far as saying that they’re not promoting the race weekend as the final one on this configuration.
When reading between the lines, I don’t think this track is changing any time soon.