1. NASCAR Racing in L.A. Coliseum? A Hollywood affair?
The NASCAR world was caught by surprise with Monday’s (Sept. 6) Labor Day bombshell in The Athletic about a potential 2022 exhibition race in Los Angeles. According to sources in the story, the Busch Clash would be moved from its traditional spot, Daytona International Speedway, to a short track custom built for the 77,500-seat L.A. Coliseum.
The target date for the race would be Feb. 6, 2022, just one week before Super Bowl LVI scheduled to be played at nearby SoFi Stadium in Inglewood. There would then be a break of over a week before Daytona 500 qualifying, a race run at a track 3,000 miles across the country on Sunday, Feb. 20.
So many questions, so few answers for a move that remains speculation at this point. Would this race be an initial showcase for the Next Gen car? Could the Coliseum build an asphalt-based track in that short a period of time? (You’d have to guess dirt is the easy answer here, right?) How will people feel about running the first race of the year away from Daytona for the first time since 1981?
I understand why NASCAR would try it. It’s never a bad idea to mix in with the NFL’s most-watched event in the country. (Too bad the Super Bowl is televised by NBC this year … not Fox. The tie-ins would have been better).
Some will say the sport is trying to pander to the Hollywood, southern California crowd. To that I say … why the heck not? That region hasn’t had a race since Auto Club Speedway in March 2020. There’s no timeline on when ACS will finish renovating itself into a short track.
And Hollywood, love ’em or hate ’em, brings eyeballs to a sport. It’s the same way a sitting president coming to the track brings attention. Star power equals high-level marketing and millions of curious eyeballs. It’s just the way modern America works.
There’s plenty of star power, from NFL players to A-List actors, that NASCAR can enlist for this project. They need a stage where more of their athletes can break through nationally the way Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon did for the last generation.
So what are the potential pitfalls? Number one: the racing has to be good. Not goofball entertainment. Can NASCAR do that on a racetrack made from scratch at the last minute?
Number two: how will the teams feel about the long travel two weeks before Daytona? What if they’re forced to run the Next Gen car? What a weird way to debut it and a bad race creates an awful first impression. (Think: Kyle Busch with the Car of Tomorrow in 2007 victory lane at Bristol Motor Speedway. It’s a quote that could never be erased.)
Number three: Can they get fans of this region to care? L.A. went decades without an NFL team and now struggles to support a second one, at minimum. Will this USC-area, college and NBA-heavy crowd care enough about a NASCAR novelty act in its backyard to show up? Empty seats would be embarrassing for what’s going to be one of the riskier gambles in recent years.
2. A Southern 500 of missed opportunities
The Lady In Black sure tormented a long list of Cup Series title contenders Sunday night. For every Denny Hamlin, making the most of his Southern 500 opportunity, there were three times as many playoff drivers playing Monday morning quarterback.
What if Martin Truex Jr. doesn’t get a late-race speeding penalty? He almost certainly wins his fourth race of the year, re-emerging as Larson’s top championship rival and bursts with momentum after overcoming a multitude of problems.
What if Ryan Blaney doesn’t spin out late with no brakes? Ross Chastain would be in position to battle Hamlin down the stretch on fresh tires for his first career Cup win. It would have been the first victory by a non-playoff driver in the history of NASCAR’s Round of 16 playoff format.
What if Michael McDowell doesn’t lose it coming off turn 2 early? It would have only taken a top-15, lead-lap finish to stay above the top-12 cutline. Considering Corey LaJoie ran 15th, in equipment similar in strength to McDowell’s, that was well within the realm of possibility. Instead, a tall order lies ahead for a driver with just one career top-10 finish combined at the next two racetracks.
How did Aric Almirola and Tyler Reddick lose their mojo? Both men earned stage one points and were primed for top-10 finishes amidst Darlington Raceway chaos. Instead, they wound up with a combined green flag pass differential of -26 and ended the race one lap behind. Runs of 16th and 18th left important points on the table when these underdogs’ margin for error is near zero.
Last but not least, it’s Kevin Harvick. Failing to close. Again. A winless Harvick had to be frustrated his fellow winless rival from last season, Hamlin, was the one to cash in at Darlington. The No. 4 Ford led 20 laps early, Harvick flexed some muscles in the daytime and appeared to have a good enough car to defend his 2020 Southern 500 victory. But then … night fell. The team had to adjust. And crew chief Rodney Childers couldn’t find the magic combination to keep up with the 3-4 cars in front of them.
A 20-point edge should still be good enough for Harvick with two races left until the Round of 12. Here’s the problem: His short track program just isn’t that good (think: Martinsville Speedway disaster that kept him out of the title race last November). This team was 24th at Richmond Raceway in the spring; that’s not going to cut it a second time. Was the momentum from a fifth-place finish enough to squeak him through?
3. How quickly can Hendrick Motorsports recover?
Of course, Hendrick Motorsports had the most nightmarish finish of all, Larson’s banzai move to the checkered flag notwithstanding. All three of their other cars crashed: reigning champion Chase Elliott, three-time winner Alex Bowman and the oft-overlooked youngest driver of the group, William Byron.
The damage left Bowman tied for 12th, Byron nine points below the cutline and Elliott just four points above. Is it time to panic?
Bowman won Richmond in the spring, running top 10 the entire night and scoring double-digit stage points. Ditto for Byron, earning the first top 10 of his Richmond career with a seventh-place result.
Next comes Bristol Motor Speedway, a track Elliott captured the All-Star Race victory at in 2020. He was seventh in the night race last fall and should have won the 2020 spring event if not for a late-race tangle with Joey Logano.
Bottom line, these two tracks set up well for this trio to get right back over the hump. If anyone is going to be vulnerable, it’s Byron; his recent track record at these places is decent, but there isn’t a long-term short track history of success. Crew chief Rudy Fugle will need to keep the No. 24 team focused these next two weeks to climb over the hump.
But 10 points or less behind Almirola and Reddick? Two drivers without the same speed or consistency throughout the year? Give Hendrick the edge on still advancing all four cars in its fleet.
4. Is Kyle Busch shooting himself in the foot?
The driver I’m more concerned about after a bizarre end to his Southern 500 is Kyle Busch. For the record, it was Almirola, not Austin Dillon, that led to disaster for Busch when the No. 10 pinched the No. 18 too low entering turns 1 and 2. Frontstretch’s Zach Sturniolo provides more details below.
TV only showed the Dillon contact. Yes, that contact was what officially led Busch into the wall, but watching live from Turn 1, Almirola had the 18 way low on entry.
Busch was still trying to save it when the No. 3 of Dillon got to his left rear. #NASCAR
— Zach Sturniolo (@zachstur) September 6, 2021
Whatever the cause of Busch’s problems, the reality was the No. 18 was a step off the pace all night. Yet what we saw post-wreck was an old school Busch temper tantrum, a self-induced punishment that didn’t fit the crime. Last I checked, he’s just two points below the cutline with two of his best career tracks ahead at Richmond and Bristol. There was no reason to murder a row of orange cones and scare the bejesus out of a dozen innocent bystanders after what happened.
Here’s where it gets interesting for me. I noticed how deftly Coach Joe Gibbs demurred from speaking on Kyle’s behavior in the post-race press conference for Hamlin.
“Well, I think everybody in the sport … ” Gibbs said, thinking a bit. “He’s been through the Playoffs a number of times. We have. And it’s extremely tough. You’ve got three races, it’s like the whole Playoffs.”
That’s as far as Gibbs would go in public. In private? He has to be steaming. All of a sudden, his best driver on paper is making a bad situation worse. Should Busch bow out in the Round of 16, it’s his second straight Championship 4 miss after nailing five in a row from 2015-2019.
Consider all the other Joe Gibbs Racing cars (Truex, Hamlin and Christopher Bell) appear to be in decent shape to advance. So what if Busch is the odd man out? With bad PR moves all along the way?
I just keep thinking about Busch’s contract, how it’s up after 2022 and Ty Gibbs is sitting there waiting in the wings. Remember, Busch retired from the NASCAR Xfinity Series after this season. That’s one less JGR tie as Busch owns his Camping World Truck Series team.
It’s just something to keep an eye on going forward. You’d think, at age 36, Busch would know better by now than to make himself unnecessarily vulnerable.
5. Why no faith in Creed?
Sheldon Creed made it look easy Sunday afternoon with his second straight Truck Series playoff victory. The reigning champion in that division has now won three times this season and eight races overall since 2020.
What driver in a lower series has more during that time period? Not many. Austin Cindric has 11 Xfinity wins and Chase Briscoe nine. Both found themselves rewarded with promotions to the NASCAR Cup Series.
Why isn’t Creed getting considered for the same? Rumors buzzed all summer Zane Smith was being looked at by Chip Ganassi Racing for a Cup promotion before their merger with Trackhouse Racing Team. Fellow Truck title contender John Hunter Nemechek is a former full-time Cup competitor himself.
At age 23, Creed remains one of the sport’s younger talents. If GMS Racing is starting a Cup program, why wouldn’t he be one of the top candidates? At the very least, he’s earned a promotion to Xfinity at this point.
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