LOS ANGELES — In front of a large, enthusiastic crowd in one of the most iconic venues in sports, Martin Truex Jr. earned his first NASCAR Cup Series victory in more than a season in a rough-and-tumble all-thrills Busch Light Clash at The Coliseum on Sunday night at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Truex’s No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota held off Austin Dillon’s No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet by a mere 0.786 seconds, leading the final 25 laps of the 150-lap annual non-points exhibition event marking the start of the NASCAR season. It was the first career Busch Light Clash victory for the former series champion.
Dillon’s new teammate, two-time series champion Kyle Busch, finished third in the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet – the three top finishers feted on a podium with medals, reminiscent of the Olympic Games the venue has also famously hosted.
“Just really good race car, the guys did a really good job with this Bass Pro Shops Toyota Camry,” the New Jersey native Truex said. “Last year was a pretty rough season for us with no wins, to come out here and kick it off this way, just really proud of these guys.
“Tonight was just kind of persevere, not give up and just battle through and we found ourselves in the right spot at the end. Sometimes they work out your way, and sometimes they don’t. Tonight, it went our way.”
The iconic HOLLYWOOD sign on the hills overlooking Turn 3 and the downtown Los Angeles skyline just beyond Turn 2 provided a unique setting for this event.
It was a packed house at the 100-year-old Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the race – lots of new fans mixed with the most loyal long-timers dressed in their best NASCAR fan T-shirts, driver jackets and hats excited to watch the NASCAR Cup Series show exactly the kind of high-drama short track action that has made the 75-year-old sport an American treasure.
The track was purpose-built inside the stadium, bringing the sport to a new market, which appears to have wholeheartedly embraced.
And while this may be a preseason exhibition, frustration was often in mid-season form Sunday night.
The race was slowed 16 times for cautions. Dillon had a late race run-in with Bubba Wallace, their cars colliding. Wallace got the worst end of the contact and was knocked from contending for the win to instead finishing 22nd in the 27-car field – despite leading 40 laps and challenging Truex as the race wound down.
“Obviously, Bubba knocked me through the corner,” Dillon said. “I was going to hit him back. Didn’t mean to turn him like that, but when it gets down to the end, I think everybody knows what’s going on, and that’s what you see at places like this and [North Carolina short track] Bowman Gray Stadium.”
Dillon acknowledged that Wallace may be upset with him and said they would talk.
Hendrick Motorsports teammates Alex Bowman and Kyle Larson rounded out the top five. Tyler Reddick was sixth in his debut in the No. 45 23XI Racing Toyota.
New Englander Ryan Preece, 32, making his first start in the No. 41 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing, led the most laps (43) but fell back with 24 laps to go, telling his crew there was a fuel-pump problem. He finished seventh.
Denny Hamlin, who won his qualifying heat earlier in the day in his No. 11 JGR Toyota, finished ninth, with driver William Byron in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet rounding out the top 10.
The four heat and two Last Chance Qualifier races Sunday afternoon provided plenty of drama in setting the field for the main event under the lights – and under the fire of the Coliseum’s famed peristyle torch. Both RFK Racing Fords – driven by team co-owner Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher were among the eight cars that didn’t qualify.
Joining the RFK drivers on that list of DNQs were Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Harrison Burton, Ty Dillon, Corey LaJoie, Cody Ware, JJ Yeley and BJ McLeod.
The NASCAR Cup Series next moves east to Florida for the Feb. 19 regular season-opening Daytona 500 at the Daytona International Speedway (Sunday, Feb. 19, 2:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Notes: Truex’s No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota cleared post-race inspection with no issue, confirming his race win. … NASCAR and Ally Financial Inc. announced a league-wide sponsorship expanding the financial institution’s presence in the sport, having Ally Bank become the Official Consumer Bank of NASCAR and NASCAR-owned tracks. The multiyear deal is in addition to Ally’s existing full-season relationship with Hendrick Motorsports and will also focus on continuing to bring unique and engaging experiences to fans while advancing inclusivity in racing.
Contributing: Staff reports