Friday 5: Clash at the Coliseum raises stakes for another NASCAR gamble

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The Clash at the Coliseum’s success raises the stakes on another gamble by NASCAR.

The Cup race on dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway.

While the Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum went off with few, if any glitches, last year’s dirt race at Bristol didn’t go as smoothly. Rain muddied the track and postponed the highly anticipated Cup race to a Monday. Series officials had to have a caution every 50 laps because of excessive tire wear. 

The event did not resonate in the way that last weekend’s Clash at the Coliseum has. 

This season, the dirt race at Bristol moves to Easter, a holiday NASCAR traditionally avoided racing on. The April 17 event also will be at night to limit the track drying out as quickly as it did during last year’s race during the day.

How fans respond to this year’s event will play a key role in determining if the dirt race returns to Bristol in 2023.

As NASCAR tries different types of races, not every event will work as expected. David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, says that series officials should continue to try new things.

“The reality is we’ve got to set aside what happened last year with Bristol dirt because this year we’re taking a completely different car,” Wilson said. “I’m not saying it’s definitely going to be better. We don’t know. There is some angst with the new car on dirt, but I do think the experiment is worth revisiting because it’s a different experiment. 

“I do think there is some attraction to dirt and how we can race on it and what tracks might lend themselves to dirt vs. other tracks. I was talking to a couple of drivers, just shooting the breeze (last weekend) and they would have loved to have seen, instead of asphalt at the Coliseum, dirt. If you think asphalt was good, let’s really bring traction into it. 

“Maybe we go back next year and it’s dirt instead of asphalt. Why not give it a try?”

A tremendous amount of hype and interest preceded the inaugural Camping World Truck Series race on dirt in 2013 at Eldora (Ohio) Speedway. That race marked the first time since 1970 that any of NASCAR’s three major national series had run on a dirt track.

As the Eldora race continued each year, the novelty waned. It went from a must-see event to another race for many fans. NASCAR last raced there in 2019. 

The series went back to dirt last year at Knoxville (Iowa) Raceway. That race was mired by 14 cautions that led to 44.6% of the race (80 of 179 laps) being run under caution. Knoxville is back on the Truck schedule this year, just as Bristol gets another chance with its dirt race.

After winning last year’s inaugural Cup dirt race at Bristol, Joey Logano was looking forward to this year’s event.

“When they announced this race, I thought it was going to be a sellout,” Logano said of last year’s race, which had a limited crowd due to the pandemic. “I do think it will be a sellout once we’re able to have full capacity back at these racetracks. This is a crazy show.”

Wilson said that the dirt race at Bristol, the Clash at the Coliseum and other events can prove key in growing NASCAR.

“The beauty about the Clash and All-Star Race is if we’re not getting out there and taking experiments, we’re just wasting opportunities – because there’s virtually nothing to lose,” Wilson said. “… I do think we need to give Bristol dirt another chance.

“There’s no question in my mind that dirt has a place in our sport.”

That will be for NASCAR’s leadership to determine.

“I think when we announced the 2021 schedule, we were really bold,” said Ben Kennedy, NASCAR senior vice president of strategy and innovation. “We were bold with the new markets we went to. We were bold with Bristol dirt. We were bold with the Indy road course and a handful of other changes we had within the schedule. 

“In 2022, we had some additional changes. We didn’t have as many changes as we had in 2021. I think looking toward 2023 and beyond, we want to continue to have changes. We want to be really thoughtful and measured on those changes. With that said, I don’t know that we’ll see the same level of changes in ’23 and beyond as we saw in ’21 and ’22.”

2. Learning the car

As with any new car, some drivers will adapt quicker than others. 

Kyle Busch, who finished second in last weekend’s Clash at the Coliseum, was asked this week if he had a sense yet of how the car would fit his skill set.

“I think it’s too early,” Busch said. “I don’t know if I can necessarily pick through whether or not it is going to fit my skill set. I feel like there’s a lot of things that we’ve been working on trying to get it to where I feel comfortable in it. 

“I don’t think I necessarily understand everything about it yet. Why did we have so much left front lockup this weekend at the short track like that? We had a little bit of that at Phoenix (in testing), actually, too. That’s something as a company we’re focusing on, trying to figure out what we can do to help and also getting this thing ready to go … It’s not as simple or as easy as we’re accustomed to because there’s so many rules. 

“I ask questions about it. Can we do this? Can we do this? Can we do this? They’re like no you can’t. No you can’t. No you can’t because there are rules that limit the things that we’re all used to in being able to fix the cars the way they drive, the way they react. You’re just limited in what you’re allowed to do with them.”

3. Learning on the fly

Among the many questions for this season is how will crew chiefs handle the potential strategy options with the faster pit stops.

With the benefit of the single lug nut, tire changers will complete their work faster than the fuel man can fill the car’s tank. Do crew chiefs send their cars out of the pit stall as soon as the tire changers are done even though the fuel tank isn’t full? Do crew chiefs wait on the fueler to complete their work before sending the car out?

“There’s a ton of new possibilities and potential land mines to step on, both from just the stop itself being new and working with new parts and pieces,” said Chris Gabehart, crew chief for Denny Hamlin.

“Depending on what track, some tracks you’re going to need tires more than others. … On top of that, we don’t know tire fall off from track to track because this car is totally different and the tires will be different. 

“There’s going to be a ton to learn. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun for you guys watching us learn throughout Stage 1 of each race. Stage 1 for each race in the first quarter of the season, we’re all going to be learning on the fly, rapidly and adjusting strategy on what we’ve learned mid-race. It will be difficult to do a lot of pre-planning where strategy is concerned. I certainly think all of that stuff is going to be very, very dynamic to start the year.”

4. Bonus for Daytona 500 winner

In years past, the Daytona 500 winning car remained in Daytona to be displayed for a year before being returned to the team. 

This season, with supply issues making some parts hard to come by, organizations will not start the season with their full complement of seven cars per team. 

Some organizations are not expected to have a backup car for every team next week at Daytona International Speedway. Instead, a four-car team could have two backups available for its organization.

Teams are nervous about crashing cars at Daytona and then going on the West Coast swing to Auto Club Speedway, Las Vegas and Phoenix. 

With that in mind, the winning team will get its car back after the Daytona 500. The car will remain overnight in Daytona for the traditional winner’s breakfast Monday before returning to the race shop. 

NASCAR will run a scan of the car and create a wrap of the winning team’s paint scheme, along with the Victory Lane confetti , and place it on the the body of one of the Next Gen prototype cars that were used in testing. That car will be on display in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America at Daytona International Speedway the rest of the year.

In 2023, the winning car will stay in Daytona for a year before being returned to the team.

5. Big day in L.A.

The lines were long for the merchandise haulers before last weekend’s Clash at the Coliseum. At the event merchandise hauler near the main entrance to the Coliseum, one line had 70 people in it and the other five lines had nearly as many. That was about 30 minutes before the start of the first heat race (more than  3 1/2 hours before the main event).

Steve Lauletta, president of 23XI Racing, said the team sold more merchandise at the hauler it shares with Joe Gibbs Racing last weekend than for any Cup event last year except the Daytona 500.

“I was really pleased, also knowing that the inventory is still fairly limited,” said Lauletta, who did not provide details of the team’s sales for Bubba Wallace and Kurt Busch items. “It was what everybody says, the indicators of merchandise sales and the interest in the market was real.”