Clash at Coliseum could impact what happens at Auto Club Speedway

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LOS ANGELES — Whether the Clash remains at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Sunday’s event could spur change at Auto Club Speedway.

NASCAR revealed plans in September 2020 to convert the 2-mile track in Fontana, California, into a half-mile bullring.  But when NASCAR goes there later this month, drivers will race on the big, wide, bumpy track that many enjoy because of how it challenges them. 

NASCAR President Steve Phelps said in November that officials were “hopeful” when asked if Auto Club would be a short track by 2023.

“Us adding another half-mile racetrack in a very important marketplace for us, I’ll call it the L.A. (metropolitan area), it’s important,” Phelps said then. “We have more fans in L.A., in that L.A. (metropolitan area), than any other (metropolitan area) in the country. It’s fertile ground.”

Yet, track president Dave Allen could not give a definitive answer this weekend of when the Auto Club’s change might take place. 

Asked Saturday if the track’s 2023 race will be on the half-mile configuration, Allen said: “Possibly. We don’t know that yet, either. Possibly. We’ll continue to treat it as if it is.”

After finishing second in Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum before a crowd that appeared to be more than 50,000, Kyle Busch suggested Auto Club Speedway’s days as a 2-mile track are numbered.

“I would prefer the 2 mile, but I guarantee you it’s getting cut up, no question, after what we saw today,” Busch said.

After a move toward adding road courses in recent years, NASCAR’s focus is on short tracks. 

Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond are the only tracks less than 1 mile on the Cup schedule. Auto Club would add another date. Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, once it clears political hurdles, appears headed to a future spot on the Cup schedule. 

Add both of those and that would make eight of the 36 points races on short tracks. Provided the six road courses remain on the schedule, the series then would have 14 of 36 points races — nearly 40% — on short tracks or road courses.

“The one gauge that we have as a sport, and it never fails, is our fans,” Clay Campbell, president of Martinsville Speedway, told NBC Sports last week. 

“The fans have spoken loud and clear the last few years that they want short tracks and they want road courses. … “You really don’t know just want to expect (at those tracks). It may not be white-knuckle exciting all the time, but you’re anticipating something, and I think that’s what you can get at places like that.”

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Brad Keselowski knew it would be a challenge in moving from Team Penske to RFK Racing as an owner/driver. The organization has won four races in the last eight seasons and had a car make the playoffs twice in the past seven seasons.

Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum wasn’t the best way for RFK to show its new look. Both Keselowski and teammate Chris Buescher were among the 13 drivers who failed to advance to the Clash. 

One should be careful to read too much into an exhibition race. But as Kyle Busch was told by his team on the radio before the race, it may be an exhibition race but it is a race and they were there to win it. That’s the mindset of any competitor. 

Still, there will be brighter days for Keselowski and his team. It will be how they manage the beginning and seek to turn RFK Racing into one that can win.

“We know we have a long way to go,” Keselowski said Saturday. “This team hasn’t won a race in four or five years and hasn’t won a non-restrictor plate track in almost nine or 10 years. You aren’t going to get where you want to be overnight. 

“It didn’t fall off to where it is overnight, and we aren’t going to fix it overnight. But we are damn sure going to try. I am cognizant that there will be some rough moments and all those things along the way that we are working through. … I am fairly optimistic about all the things we are doing and the direction we are going and feel it will pay dividends as we go.”

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The debut of the Next Gen car was overshadowed by the anticipation and spectacle of the Clash at the Coliseum but its performance was noteworthy.

With NASCAR’s push toward short track racing, the sport needs a car that can handle bumping and beating. There’s still more to learn about the car, but it showed some positive signs compared to the previous car in handling some contact on the track.

It wasn’t uncommon for contact to bend in a fender and lead to a cut tire with the previous car. For all the beating and banging at the Clash, drivers didn’t face that issue as much.

“Honestly I think the biggest win we saw (Sunday), with the car itself, is that we can bump and bang and not cut tires down,” Joey Logano said after his victory. “Very little cut tires down.

“For as much as cars were on each other’s doors, think about when we used to do that at Martinsville, give each other a fender rip immediately. Next thing you know your car is spinning out, you have flat tires.

“There was a lot of bumping and banging, and it was okay. That says a lot about the body on the car, but also the tire and wheel package that we were able to have really, honestly, full contact without being nervous about cutting tires down.”

There were some mechanical issues and NASCAR was examining those. Tyler Reddick said his car broke a transaxle and suggested he might have gotten too aggressive with it. Upon further examination, a Chevrolet official told NBC Sports it was studying a failure with the prop shaft(driveshaft) and not the transaxle. Chase Briscoe also had a driveline failure and NASCAR was checking with the team on that matter.

Overall, the car performed well this weekend.

“The Next Gen car really wasn’t a story, and I’m happy for that,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer. “This is probably the toughest test we could have on the track that we set up in terms of durability, beating and banging, driveline, different things. We’ll learn from that. All in all really successful debut for the car, as well.”