Five things to watch in Saturday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway

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SPARTA, Ky. – And as NASCAR embarks on an untested and uncertain era of purpose-built progress, a child shall lead them.

OK, Kyle Larson is 22, but his youthful verve, stock-car innocence and dirt-track savvy are among the myriad reasons making him a fine choice to start first at Kentucky Speedway in Saturday’s Quaker State 400, which will plunge the Sprint Cup Series into a two-month wave of tailor-made rules changes.

It starts with a lower-downforce configuration (achieved through a vastly reduced spoiler) that is intended to de-emphasize aerodynamics and spice up the action at Kentucky, a 1.5-mile oval where lead changes have been in short supply since its Cup debut four years ago.

A “high-drag” approach will be applied with a megaspoiler at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (July 26) and Michigan International Speedway (Aug. 16), and then the low-downforce arrangement will return Sept. 6 with the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

It represents a major philosophical overhaul for NASCAR from implementing full-season rules (albeit with some frequent tweaking) for decades to tailoring the cars to the tracks.

With rain greatly curtailing practice at Kentucky, it’s virtually impossible to forecast what will happen Saturday night, and it would seem to tip the scales in favor of Larson, who mightily has struggled through a sophomore slump after a sublime rookie season hinted at the imminence of a breakthrough victory. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver also has a vast background in sprint cars, and that should help as the more ill-handling Cup cars are expected to slide around the weathered asphalt as if being raced on the slippery Midwestern clay.

source: Getty Images
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400 Presented by Advance Auto Parts – Practice

All of these points matter little to Larson, however, whose nonplussed answers are indicative of the Millennial ambivalence that NASCAR is trying to shatter in hooking a younger audience with a more action-packed brand of racing.

“We’re on a pavement track, so it doesn’t take me anywhere close to back to my dirt roots at all,” Larson said. “So, stock cars are heavy. They’re sluggish in a way. It doesn’t really feel a whole lot different to me other than just a little bit looser in the corner, and you have to lift a little bit sooner and maybe use a little bit more brake. But other than that, it doesn’t drive too differently.”

The nonchalance has been indicative of his speed Friday.

While the radio channels of many veterans were filled with consternation while trying to solve the new package across two practices, Larson seemed the most adaptable. He paced both sessions in his No. 42 Chevrolet and turned a 182.537-mph lap in the first that was the quickest of the weekend.

If the Japanese-American driver (a graduate of the Drive For Diversity) were to capture his first victory in NASCAR’s premier series while heralding the dawn of a fresh sheen for stock-car racing, that would make quite a storyline for stock-car racing.

Here are others to watch Saturday night:

Break the bubbly? With his Friday win in the Xfinity Series, Brad Keselowski will enter Saturday’s race as a clear-cut favorite. He has won two of the four Cup races at Kentucky, and he was second in both practices Friday (Rodney Childers, crew chief for Kevin Harvick, said the Team Penske Fords of Keselowski and Joey Logano had everyone covered).

This also could be viewed as a statement race for the 2012 series champion, whose cars mostly have lacked speed to contend for victories. He is locked into the Chase for the Sprint Cup thanks to a victory at Auto Club Speedway, but Keselowski needs his team to start rounding into title form.

“When you get in this car and win, that confidence, that momentum, you just feel it in your soul, you feel it in your body and that energy that you have it just really feels special,” Keselowski said after the Xfinity win. “I’m very pumped about this win and feeling very much like we can carry it into (Saturday).  I honestly think my Cup car is just as good, so we’re ready.”

After needing several stitches in his right hand to close a wound sustained by breaking a bottle of champagne after last season’s Kentucky win, Keselowski also is prepared to celebrate. A fan recently educated him on proper bottle-opening technique – with a sword. “I haven’t quite got the guts up to open a bottle with a sword, but if I was going to try it this would be the weekend,” he joked.

–Completing the resume: It’s the last start at Kentucky for Jeff Gordon and thus the last chance for the four-time series champion to cap his illustrious career with an impressive achievement – winning at every track on the circuit. Of the 23 tracks in the series, Kentucky (which is holding only its fifth Sprint Cup race Saturday) is the only victory lane void for the Hendrick Motorsports driver. “It would mean a lot to accomplish that,” he said. “I love doing things that are hard to do and set those kinds of stats. It wouldn’t mean so much to me if I hadn’t won on all the other ones.  It would just mean a lot to win it.”

The odds are somewhat stacked against his 93rd career win, though: Gordon hasn’t led a lap yet at Kentucky, and there also hasn’t been a Chevrolet winner here yet in Cup.

Waterworld: Saturday’s forecast thankfully is dry, but wet conditions still could remain an unfortunate subplot to the racing at Kentucky, which was soaked this past week. Even when the rain stops, there have been interminable delays because of pesky “weepers” – water seeping through the cracks of the aged asphalt – and it apparently is happening while cars are at speed, too.

Jimmie Johnson speculated he hit a damp patch that caused his No. 48 Chevy to brush the wall in practice Friday, and Kyle Busch said the frontstretch developed many wet areas as Thursday’s Camping World Truck Series race unfolded. Referring to a track’s “character” is one of the great euphemisms in NASCAR driver vernacular, and Kentucky’s surface, already maligned as the circuit’s roughest, has endured a week of “character” development worthy of a Hollywood screenplay.

–Frontward focus: Since its inaugural event in 2011, there hasn’t been a lead change in the last 10 laps of a Sprint Cup race at Kentucky. The lower-downforce rules are aimed at changing that, and lead changes might be the most important metric NASCAR monitors in evaluating whether the new direction is a success.

But because Goodyear didn’t have time to build a tire to match the package (which will be the case at Darlington), many also have tried to manage expectations about the efficacy of the new rules package. If this race doesn’t deliver drama, no one will be hitting panic buttons. However if the outcome is in doubt as much as Friday night’s Xfinity duel between Erik Jones and Keselowski, there will be high-fives galore in the NASCAR tower.

 

Justin Haley tops field in Clash qualifying

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley posted the fastest lap in Saturday’s qualifying for the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Haley will start the first of four heats on the pole after a lap of 67.099 mph (13.413 seconds). The four heat races will be held Sunday afternoon, followed by two last chance qualifying races and then the Busch Clash on Sunday night.

“I feel pretty confident about where we are,” Haley said. “I’m not sure why we’re so good here.”

The top four qualifiers will start on the pole for their heat race.

Kyle Busch, who was second on the speed chart with a lap of 66.406 mph, will start on the pole for the second heat. That comes in his first race with Richard Childress Racing after having spent the past 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Christopher Bell, third on the speed chart with a lap of 66.328 mph, will start on the pole for the third heat. William Byron, fourth in qualifying with a lap of 66.196 mph, will start on the pole in the fourth heat race.

The pole-sitters for each of the four heat races last year all won their heat. That included Haley, who was third fastest in qualifying last year and won the third heat from the pole.

Ty Gibbs was not allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments his team made while making repairs to his car after the door foam caught fire during practice. NASCAR deemed that the Joe Gibbs Racing team made adjustments to the car not directly related to the damage.

Ryan Blaney‘s fastest qualifying lap was disallowed after he stopped the car in Turn 4 and turned it around and to go back to the backstretch and build speed for his final lap. NASCAR disallowed the time from that final lap for the maneuver.

Section 7.8.F of the Cup Rule Book states: “Unless otherwise determined by the Series Managing Director, drivers who encounter a problem during Qualifying will not be permitted to travel counter Race direction.”

The top five finishers in each of the four 25-lap heat races advance to the Clash. The top three in the two 50-lap last chance races move on to the Clash. The final spot in the 27-car field is reserved for the driver highest in points not yet in the field.

Chase Briscoe, AJ Allmendinger in first on-track conflict of the season.

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LOS ANGELES — The first on-track conflict of the 2023 NASCAR Cup season?

Did you have Chase Briscoe and AJ Allmendinger?

They made contact during Saturday night’s practice session at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the Busch Light Clash.

Busch Clash practice results

Briscoe explained what happened from his point of view.

“(Allmendinger) was slowing down so much on the straightaway to get a gap (away from other cars),” Briscoe told Motor Racing Network. “I felt like I was beside him pretty far down the straightaway. I got in there a little hot for sure, but, honestly, I thought he was going to give it to me since we were in practice. Went into (Turn) 3 and he just drove me straight into the fence. Definitely frustrating. … Just unfortunate. We don’t have a single back-up car out there between the four of us at SHR. 

“Definitely will set us behind quite a bit. Just chalk it up in the memory blank.”

Asked what happened with Briscoe, Allmendinger told MRN: “He ran inside of me, so I made sure I paid him back and sent him into the fence.

“It’s practice. I get it, I’m struggling and in the way, but come barreling in there. I just showed my displeasure for it. That’s not the issue. We’re just not very good right now.”

Earlier in practice, Ty Gibbs had to climb out of his car after it caught on fire. Gibbs exiting the car safely. The Joe Gibbs Racing team worked on making repairs to his No. 54 car. NASCAR stated that the car would not be allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments, modifications not directly related to the damage.

NASCAR will not race at Auto Club Speedway in 2024

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LOS ANGELES — Auto Club Speedway will not host a NASCAR race next year because of plans to convert the 2-mile speedway into a short track.

It will mark only the second time the Cup Series has not raced at the Southern California track since first competing there in 1997. Cup did not race at the track in 2021 because of the pandemic.

Dave Allen, Auto Club Speedway president, also said Saturday that “it’s possible” that the track might not host a NASCAR race in 2025 because of how long it could take to make the conversion. 

MORE: Details for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum 

NASCAR came to the Fontana, California, track during the sport’s expansion in the late 1990s that also saw Cup debut at Texas (1997), Las Vegas (1998) and Homestead (1999).

Auto Club Speedway begins the West Coast swing this season, hosting the Cup Series on Feb. 26, a week after the Daytona 500. The series then goes to Las Vegas and Phoenix the following two weeks.

Auto Club Speedway has been among a favorite of drivers because of its aging pavement that put more of the car’s control in the hands of competitors. 

Allen said that officials continue to work on the track’s design. It is expected to be a half-mile track. With NASCAR already having a half-mile high-banked track (Bristol) and half-mile low-banked track (Martinsville), Allen said that a goal is to make Auto Club Speedway stand out.

“It has to make a statement, and making sure that we have a racetrack that is unique to itself here and different than any of the tracks they go to is very important,” Allen said. “Having said that, it’s equally important … to make sure that the fan experience part is unique.”

Kyle Larson, who won last year’s Cup race at Auto Club Speedway, said that he talked to Allen on Saturday was told the track project likely will take about 18 months. 

“I don’t know exactly the extent of what they’re doing with the track, how big it’s going to be, the shape or banking and all that, and I love the 2-mile track, but I think the more short tracks we can have, the better off our sport is going to be,” Larson said.

With Auto Club Speedway off the schedule in 2024, it would mean the only time Cup raced in the Los Angeles area would be at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. NASCAR has a three-year contract with the Coliseum to race there and holds the option to return.

Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum marks the second year of that agreement. Last year’s inaugural event at the Coliseum drew about 50,000 fans. NASCAR has not publicly stated if it will return to the Coliseum next year.

Sunday Clash at the Coliseum: Start time, TV info, race format

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LOS ANGELES – NASCAR is back and back at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Nearly three months after Joey Logano won the Cup title at Phoenix, Cup drivers return to action this weekend to run the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum exhibition race on Sunday night.

This marks the second consecutive year the series has raced inside the Coliseum, which has hosted the Super Bowl, World Series and Olympics.

Details for Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum 

(All times Eastern)

HEAT RACES: There will be four 25-lap heat races. Caution laps do not count. The top five from each race advance to the Busch Light Clash. The first heat race is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m.

LAST CHANCE QUALIFIERS: There will be two 50-lap qualifiers for drivers who did not advance to the Clash through their heat races. Caution laps do not count. The top three finishers in each of the qualifiers advance to the Clash. The 27-car Clash lineup will be finalized by adding one provisional spot for the driver highest in points last season not yet in the Clash field. The first of these two last chance qualifying races is scheduled to begin at 6:10 p.m.

CLASH STARTING LINEUP: To be set by heat races and the Last Chance Qualifiers. Winner of heat 1 will start on the pole for the Clash. Winner of heat 2 will start second. Winner of heat 3 will start third. Winner of heat 4 will start 4th. Runner-up in heat 1 will start fifth and so on.

PRERACE: Cup garage opens at 11 a.m. … Driver intros are at 7:50 p.m. … Invocation by Judah Smith, lead pastor of Churchome, at 8:07 p.m. … The USC Trojan Marching Band will perform the national anthem at 8:08 p.m. … Actor Rob Lowe will give the command to fire engines at 8:15 p.m. … The green flag is scheduled to be waved by USC quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams at 8:20 p.m.

DISTANCE: The Clash is 150 laps (37.5 miles) on the 1/4-mile short track.

STAGES: There will be a stage break at Lap 75 (halfway in the Clash). Wiz Khalifa will perform during the break.

TV/RADIO: Fox will broadcast the event, beginning at 4 p.m. . … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 4:30 p.m. and also will stream at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Partly cloudy with a high of 63 degrees and a 1% chance of rain for the start of the heat races. Partly cloudy with a high of 61 degrees and a 1% chance of rain for the Clash..

LAST TIME: Joey Logano held off Kyle Busch to win the inaugural Clash at the Coliseum. Austin Dillon placed third. .

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