First Clash operation: Cup Series gets ready for its close-up in Coliseum debut

LOS ANGELES – The Busch Light Clash inched another day closer Saturday to pulling back the season-opening curtain on its Tinseltown debut. All the changes on tap for 2022 were primed for a sneak preview, from the new Next Gen car to the first official laps on the temporary Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum surface.

Predictions? Computer models and simulations can only do so much to un-muddle the unknown, but if the on-track action in a more-or-less cautious opening practice offers an indication, full-contact racing should be the theme. Sounds right for a venue that regularly hosts tackle football.

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“My job is to use it, not fix it,” said California native Kevin Harvick, referring to the trusty front bumper of his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. “That is the theory I am going with this week. I hit the wall, hit a car, and they haven’t said a word about it. So next time I will use it harder, I guess.”

The scene is set for qualifying heats and ultimately a 150-lap main event in Sunday’s Busch Light Clash (6 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN Radio, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) for the NASCAR Cup Series. The preliminaries will determine the 23-car field for the Clash feature.

Cup Series rookie Harrison Burton and his No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford led the first group out for practice Saturday morning, fittingly linking the sport’s longest-running team to another historic first. The rest of the group sessions had their share of bumps and minor scrapes – something that may be an inevitability this weekend on the tight quarter-mile oval.

“I don’t remember getting hit or hitting anyone,” said Chase Elliott, before adding: “… yet.”

After building some heat and rubber into the fresh asphalt, drivers worked to find the groove, sometimes cutting below the white line and over the rumble strips at corner entry. The adjustments weren’t just limited to the track, but also with drivers getting used to the new car’s extra grip, extra turn and improved braking power.

Sean Gardner | Getty Images
Sean Gardner | Getty Images

In some instances, the orientation required drawing on some short-track experience from the memory banks.

“It’s exciting. It reminds me a lot of Summer Shootout and racing Legend cars, so I’m glad I went back and ran one a couple years ago to knock the rust off,” said Bubba Wallace, referring to his time on the Charlotte Motor Speedway’s frontstretch quarter-mile. “It’s cool to see it being pulled off, and hats off to NASCAR and everybody here in LA to make this happen that it’s actually happening so I think we were expecting a lot different then we got on track actually this morning for some practice laps and it was like, ‘All right, we can we can make a race out of this.’ ”

Harvick is one of two current Cup Series drivers with some history of racing near – but not inside – the LA Coliseum. The 2014 series champ recalled racing along with Kurt Busch in the former NASCAR Southwest Tour around a temporary street course on the grounds outside the stadium, including all the bumps and jumps from the dodgy surface there. Sunday’s race has a different allure, something that breathed new life into the exhibition event that’s run annually at Daytona International Speedway until now.

“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,” said Harvick, who hails from Bakersfield, just under two hours north. “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 (times) 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.”

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The other rewards will come with the first checkered flag Sunday and the Clash trophy, which is modeled after the Coliseum’s architecture. Elliott, fastest in Saturday’s cumulative practice sessions, goes off as the betting favorite with Hendrick Motorsports teammate and defending Cup champ Kyle Larson not far behind in the pecking order. And Kyle Busch put his own name into the hat of contenders with a top lap in Saturday’s qualifying, leading Tyler Reddick, Justin Haley and Joey Logano into the pole slots for Sunday’s heats.

Burton’s christening of the track may go down as a fun footnote in NASCAR trivia, but winning the first trophy would blaze a historic trail.

“I think it would be super cool to be the first person to win this race. I don’t think anybody would tell you anything different,” Elliott said. “Yeah, I think it would be a huge deal. Not only that, but a great way to start your year off. This is something new and exciting. I think we’re all very fortunate and lucky to even be here and be a part of it. If you’re standing on top of the mountain at the end of the day for something like this, this type of location and this type of an event – I think it is special and it should be for whoever wins.”