Madhouse meets Tinseltown: Year 2 of short-track Clash ramps up entertainment, sore feelings

FOX Sports announcers Mike Joy and Clint Bowyer invoked the name of Bowman Gray Stadium a time or two during Sunday night’s broadcast of the Busch Light Clash at The Coliseum. Race runner-up Austin Dillon did the same post-race, a nod to the pint-size but bruising quarter-mile track in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, just one county up from his stomping grounds.

Sunday’s second edition of the Clash had the look and feel of a Saturday night madhouse scramble in the tobacco capital but was set instead in a historic West Coast arena with elaborate pageantry and Olympic bonafides. And just like the stadium, the formula for denting fenders and friendliness was perfectly mixed.

“Just a lot of chaos, a lot of mayhem, a lot of disrespect, if you will,” said third-finisher Kyle Busch. “That’s tight-quarters racing at a quarter mile. What do you expect, right?”

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Last year’s inaugural exhibition in Los Angeles was shaped by heavy uncertainty — about both the new car and the new track, which were 1A and 1B on the list of unknowns — and the non-points event’s unique nature, which remains one of one in the NASCAR Cup Series. Year 1 was more about whether the NASCAR industry could pull off such an undertaking; Year 2 was whether the Clash could be a more competitive show. With a bit more familiarity with both car and track for this year’s edition, drivers’ limits on how far they could push were more of a known quantity.

Push they did. What the race may have lacked in flow, thanks to 16 caution periods, it made up for as an incubator for full-contact drama.

We emerged with preseason grudges — some rekindled from long-ago but lingering wounds and others we didn’t know we had or wanted. The on-and-off feuds involving Denny Hamlin and Ross Chastain, plus Joey Logano and Busch, were stoked anew by Sunday night transgressions. Hard feelings between Dillon and Bubba Wallace also came to light when a late-race bumping battle boiled all the way over.

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Those are just the higher-profile squabbles. It’s a full laundry list all the way down the field, and the season hasn’t truly started yet. “I don’t think anyone really respects anyone that much,” Hamlin said later, replying to NBC Sports’ Dustin Long, “but that’s just kinda the new way.”

Drivers and teams usually enter the two-week run-up until the season-opening Daytona 500 with embryonic optimism, but now there might be an edge to that boundless hope. The 2.5-mile superspeedway is rarely a place where scores are settled, but drivers might be far less likely to cut a rival a break when fighting for prime positioning inside the aerodynamic draft. Other opportunities for evening up the tote board could be filed away for later in the season.

The Busch Light Clash has worked so far as an exhibition, using a one-off format and venue to bring NASCAR racing to a different market. Just don’t say it’s all for funsies. The madhouse gladiators can attest to that.