By Matt Weaver, Special Contributor
The fireworks on the track were just starting to give way to the fireworks above it, just beyond the lit torch of the iconic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, a fitting backdrop to the spectacle that preceded it.
In many ways, the Busch Clash at the Coliseum sequel was every bit the presentation intended by the original.
There was a podium presentation with winner Martin Truex Jr. standing one step above the Richard Childress Racing duo of Austin Dillon and Kyle Busch. And you just know ‘Rowdy’ was beyond ecstatic to stand there forcing a smile while accepting an Olympics-style bronze medal — especially after being forced to drive through the field following an early spin to get there.
Above all, is there anyone in the history of motorsports who loves finishing second or third more than Kyle Busch? /s
Childress spoke of the spectacle as well as anyone, keying into his veteran’s radio after the race and telling Busch that they will get it better for him next time … if they have to come back next year.
The second running of the Coliseum Clash main event took double the amount of time as the original, had triple the number of cautions, and featured an average speed of 21.831 mph. That wasn’t a typo. The eventual winner was completely out of rear brakes by the end of the race.
“Your rear brakes are glowing like a motherfucker,” said Truex crew chief James Small with 37 to go.
They’re just overheated,” Truex said. “They’re red because they aren’t stopping anymore and I’m using too much pedal.”
The situation the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 19 team found themselves in was surely better than those chasing him. The pursuers still had brakes by the end, seemingly from their decision not to use them for 150 laps, while using each other up like ping pong balls.
And if this sounds like a complaint, it’s not, because this is exactly the kind of exhibition race, all-star spectacle the Clash needs to be at this point in the rebounding history of NASCAR.
Everyone longs for the time Cup Series events were attended by A-list celebrities, musical acts and headliners. They lament that the highest level of the discipline is no longer appointment mainstream television. But on a day designed to be the unfiltered fun needed to pull them in, a subset of the audience rejected it.
But really, this is effectively The Winston for our times.
Even as drivers beat the hell out of each other during the heats simply to make the feature, their peers were seen laughing and in awe at the drama from the infield, a sentiment shared by those watching in attendance.
The Clash at the Coliseum has intensity, drama and purpose while located in the heart of the second largest downtown in the United States. NASCAR hoped the casual demo would come for the musical rotation but leave wanting to watch the Daytona 500 in two weeks.
And even with the extended runtime, some of the near comical chaos, those in attendance probably left the historic gates feeling as though they had a good time.
While we can, and will pick nits in this space, the Clash remains a success in this current iteration. There will come so many points over the course of the season to pick the Cup Series apart, but the Clash just isn’t that serious.
Rear Impact Concerns
What is that serious, at least until proven otherwise, is the concern of concussions from rear impacts after several drivers dealt with concussion issues in the first year of the Gen 7 platform. It may very well have prematurely retired Kurt Busch too.
NASCAR designed, and paid for the off-season implementation of a new rear clip, intended to reduce rear impact to the drivers — something they even felt while bump-drafting at Daytona, Talladega and Atlanta last season.
Early in the race on Sunday, Bubba Wallace indicated that it was still a concern, at least from the Clash.
“Uh NASCAR, rear bumper hits are still fucking awful,” Wallace said over the 23XI Racing radio.
Kyle Larson said it remains an issue.
“I don’t have a headache, but I could see how if others do, it’s no surprise because it was very violent for the majority of the race,” Larson said. “We had so many restarts, and like I said, every restart you’re getting just clobbered and then you’re clobbering the guy in front of you. You feel it a lot.”
Denny Hamlin said on his podcast that he felt nothing different from 2022 on Sunday.
This isn’t intended to be alarmist, but the industry is rightfully hyper-aware until provided reasons not to be.
Year-over-year, NASCAR added four cars to the Clash feature, five from each heat race instead of four. While the heat races were just fine on Sunday, having the drama from four other potential stars beyond Brad Keselowski missing the race, took away some of the overall drama from the event.
After all, consider a race like Chili Bowl last month where marquee names like Buddy Kofoid, Alex Bowman and Chase Briscoe dramatically missed out on the feature for various reasons despite having contending programs.
The prestige of an event is quantified by who doesn’t make the event, not who does, something the modern NASCAR misses the mark on when it comes to the Clash, All Star Race and playoffs. When someone of consequence can miss the feature, it adds to the drama of the event, not takes away from it.
But also, having four extra cars on the track might have contributed to the chaos on Sunday night too.
The leaders caught the tail-end of the lead lap almost immediately, which created a great deal of traffic for everyone to navigate but also led to a tremendous amount of crashing too. Again, the number went from 4 to 16 year-over-year.
But at the same time, the feature last year was too procedural, even getting a little too spaced out by the end when some cars dropped out. The 2022 Clash probably needed some traffic to make that race between Joey Logano and Busch a little more interesting.
Perhaps the chaos in 2023 was just a byproduct of drivers feeling more confident in pushing and shoving with the Gen 7 and it would have happened even wit four fewer cars. Regardless, there is probably a sweeter spot to be found pertaining to the racing-to-wrecking ratio.
And four less cars making the field likely improves the quality of racing for the main event and increases the drama of the heats and last chances races.
With all of that said, moving the feature to nighttime seemed to make for a racier track too, as both Saturday and Sunday reduced overall grip levels for the drivers in both practice and the race. In a cold night on a green, fresh pavement temporary track, a grip-limited race was a better race and that probably doesn’t happen in the heat of day.
Funny Doesn’t Make Money
While the whimsical silly nature of an exhibition pre-race has a lot of merit, the comedy needs to end once the main event television window begins.
The starting lineup being introduced by teams rather than individuals made for a very cool visual on the entrance ramp until Joel McHale mispronounced the names of everyone and everything between jokes that fell flat on television.
Front Row Sports
Kyle, er, Kevin Harvick
The most wins in NASCAR history, Kyle Busch
Come 8 p.m., it’s time to portray the sport in its most serious, dramatic light by someone who cares enough to give it the proper endorsement over plugging another upcoming IP on FOX. That’s where having Tony Stewart, once again, in the booth as a television analyst was a huge treat.
Stewart takes this role very seriously, is insightful while making the product feel consequential and important, something that doesn’t always get conveyed well during the first half of the season.
NASCAR has engaging and often humorous personalities and there’s a big pre-race window to get that across, but the jokes end on NFL and MLB broadcasts once the game starts, and NASCAR should be no exception.
Drama and Narrative Personified
While it ultimate didn’t work out for him, the Clash was very much the Ryan Preece Show, until a faulty fuel pump cost him a chance to win in the closing laps. Still, the Modified Tour champion turned NASCAR journeyman led the most laps in his debut race at Stewart Haas Racing.
An exhibition race on a unique quarter-mile track doesn’t mean much for the regular season but leading the most laps made a statement that he has arrived at the front of the grid in his first opportunity driving championship caliber equipment.
Meanwhile, Busch was dumped early in the race from the front of the field but drove all the way back up to third by the finish in his debut appearance for Richard Childress Racing.
Bubba Wallace was leading late and still in contention when he spun off the front bumper of Dillon. That moment in particular led to this well-done camera cut from Dillon’s interview to Wallace still decompressing in the immediate aftermath of the race.
Again, NASCAR is a drama and not a comedy!
Not even a single regular season race into the season and Denny Hamlin has already been spun by Ross Chastain too. All told, the Clash whet the appetite for the season to come and set the stage for the personalities and storylines that will start in two weeks with the Daytona 500.