NASCAR’s first green flag of 2023 is ready to wave, revving up what is sure to be a dramatic 75th anniversary season for the sport — new venues and old rivalries; fresh expectations and a milestone championship.
Teams are arriving in sunny Los Angeles to prepare for the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum in primetime this Sunday night (8 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), the second time the NASCAR Cup Series has opened its season at the historic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Another enthusiastic crowd is expected for the 150-lap non-points exhibition main event Sunday, with qualifying and heat races in the afternoon and A-List performers such as Wiz Khalifa, Cypress Hill, Cheat Codes and Dixie D’Amelio entertaining the crowd on site and at home throughout the day.
Actor Rob Lowe will serve as grand marshal and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Caleb Williams of USC will be the honorary starter.
Practice starts Saturday at the quarter-mile asphalt oval constructed inside the Coliseum just for this mega-event. And with a race under their belt now for this unique show at this special venue, the Cup Series drivers have raised their expectations and their game.
Team Penske driver Joey Logano proved last February that the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum could be a huge send-off for the regular season, which officially starts with the Feb. 19 Daytona 500. The 32-year-old Logano won the Clash at the Coliseum and ultimately capped off the year hoisting his second NASCAR Cup Series championship trophy.
There are six former active winners of this 45-year-old race, including three-time winners Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick, who will be retiring at the end of the season. Kyle Busch, who will be making his first race start with a new team (Richard Childress Racing) and Logano each have a pair of Clash victories. Brad Keselowski, owner/driver for Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing and Erik Jones, with the rebranded Legacy Motor Club, each have a Busch Light Clash trophy as well.
A second straight victory for Logano in the No. 22 Team Penske Ford would make him only the fifth driver in NASCAR history to win consecutive Busch Light Clash races and the first since Harvick did it in 2009-10.
There will be no shortage of compelling competition with only 27 of the 36 drivers entered this weekend making the race field. There will be four Heat races with the top-five finishers in each advancing to the Main Event — making up 20 starting positions.
Six additional starting spots will be determined through “Last Chance” races — the top-three in two Last Chance Qualifier races will advance to the show. And the final place on the grid is reserved for the driver who finished highest in the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series standings that didn’t qualify through Heat or Last Chance races.
This week NASCAR announced several significant rule changes for the 2023 season, among them a more stringent enforcement of the “Hail Mary” move at one of the sport’s smallest venues, the half-mile Martinsville (Va.) Speedway that propelled Trackhouse Racing driver Ross Chastain into last year’s Championship 4 Round.
Chastain drove his No. 1 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet hard against the outside wall for the final half lap to gain a huge speed advantage and to ultimately gain a position among the title-chasing four drivers.
Although the risky one-of-a-kind move was allowed then, it won’t be going forward — beginning this week at the quarter-mile Coliseum oval.
NASCAR officials strongly reminded teams on Tuesday that it will enforce rule 10.5.2.6.A which, in part, states “any violations deemed to compromise the safety of an Event or otherwise pose a dangerous risk to the safety of Competitors, Officials, spectators or others are treated with the highest degree of seriousness.” If a driver attempts something officials deem unsafe, he will receive a time penalty.
Coming off a record-setting season with the debut of the Next Gen car, there are high expectations for 2023. Last year’s tally tied a record for number of different race winners (19) in a single season and the modern-era record for most first-time NASCAR Cup Series winners in a season (five). More than 60 percent of the races (22 of 36) were won by drivers under the age of 30, including 23-year-old Austin Cindric’s amazing Daytona 500 win in his first start in the iconic race.
The average margin of victory for the 36 races was 1.011 seconds — the second closest since the advent of electronic scoring in 1993. And the 1,544 green flag passes for the lead were the most since Loop Data statistics began in 2007.
It all bodes well for this 75th anniversary season. Drivers are enthusiastic to get back in the cockpit this week and see what 2023 holds for them, beginning with this unique event at the L.A. Coliseum.
“After practicing and running the race (last year), it was probably the most fun that I had all year because the cars raced so well,” said Harvick, who drives the No. 4 SHR Ford. “You could beat and bang and the racetrack was actually pretty race-y. As you look back on it, it was definitely a fun experience.”
For the first time, the race will feature a fitting nod to previous major events at the venue. NASCAR will hold a medal ceremony for the first three finishers with a podium in victory lane. NASCAR senior vice president Ben Kennedy and the Boys & Girls Club of Carson’s Youth of the Year Winner will present the gold, silver and bronze medals to the top-three drivers.
“These will be tremendous prizes for our drivers who are competing inside a venue that’s hosted two Olympic games and preparing for a third,” Kennedy said. “Not only do the medals honor the rich tradition of this stadium, but they also provide a special element unique to NASCAR’s 75th anniversary.”