Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum Previews 2022 NASCAR Underdogs

If you would have told me as recently as a year ago that the NASCAR Cup Series would be circling around the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to open 2022, you probably would have gotten a robust laugh from me. Fast forward to this Sunday, Feb. 6, and that far-fetched dream became a reality with the sport’s exhibition Busch Light Clash.

In a tasteful experience of stadium racing, drivers took to battle in one of America’s most iconic sporting venues. The weekend featured practice and heat qualifying, four heat races and two last chance qualifiers to set the 23-car field for the 150-lap event. The amount of novelty may give you a headache processing it all.

We saw the debut of the long-anticipated Next Gen car, new faces in new places and a brand new venue that did not disappoint. The former Super Bowl and Olympic Games hosting venue shined, producing an exciting race where underdogs had an opportunity to shine behind winner Joey Logano.

Carrying the Torch: Erik Jones

Erik Jones had an impressive start to his second season with newly re-branded Petty GMS Motorsports. Jones competed in the fourth and final heat race, where the top four drivers advanced to the main event. After acting as a pinball at times, he survived to finish fourth and take the final transfer spot. The advancement set Jones’ No. 43 to start from 16th for the big show.

By lap 40 of the race, Jones found himself inside the top 10. That is where he stayed the rest of the race, flashing Richard Petty’s famous No. 43 under the California sun in front of a L.A. audience.

The Byron, Mich. native was also on the receiving end of a common toss at short tracks: the HANS device. With just under 40 laps to go, he tangled with Ryan Blaney. Contact from Jones sent Blaney sliding up the track and into the outside wall, disintegrating any chance of the No. 12 winning. The frustration that followed from Blaney may be among the hottest we’ve seen from the young driver.

“I was racing with him there and he brake-checked me off of (turn) 4. It’s like, OK, no real reason, so I didn’t appreciate that and felt like I showed it on the track,” Jones told FOX Sports after the race. “We have a conversation, we have a conversation. I mean, it’s an exhibition race and we’re out here doing what we can, and I was frustrated with the move that he made, so that’s what happened.”

Distraction was not an option for Jones, who immediately rebounded to move inside the top five with 10 laps to go, passing none other than defending champion Kyle Larson. He climbed one more rung to earn a fourth-place finish, a strong opening for a team that struggled to find its footing in 2021. The run he had Sunday should provide a solid amount of optimism for fans of the No. 43 this season.

“Overall, my No. 43 FOCUSfactor Chevy was really good. It was a good weekend to come home fourth for us,” Jones added after the race. “It’s not a race that means a lot, as far as setting us up for the rest of the season. But nobody came out here not trying. It feels good to run good and we’ll hopefully we’ll carry that momentum to Daytona.”

Examining the Spread

One potential feature that fans have been itching to see is whether the Next Gen car will provide a more equal playing field for all teams. While the Clash is certainly not the most insightful opportunity, it did show a lot of parity to start with. If Justin Haley continues to run like he did this weekend, it wouldn’t be fair to call him an underdog long-term.

While he is not eligible for Sunoco Rookie of the Year, Haley may as well be considered a rookie in his first full-time season. Add in the fact he’s running for Kaulig Racing, which is entering its first full-time Cup season as well, and the odds were stacked against him entering this weekend.

Well, Haley consistently had one of the fastest cars at the L.A. Coliseum and adapted well to the uniqueness of the quarter-mile track. He cruised to victory in his heat race, placing him in the third starting position for the main event. The 22-year-old proved his promotion to the Cup Series, staying inside the top five nearly all race and setting himself up to potentially challenge for the win.

That all came to a screeching halt with 34 laps to go. Off of turn 4, Haley made contact with Kyle Larson, sending his No. 31 LeafFilter Chevrolet hard into the inside wall. The damage ended his race and relegated him to a 19th-place finish.

“We had a fast Chevrolet,” Haley said after emerging from the infield care center. “The whole race, we were just kind of pacing ourselves. And then obviously towards the end of the race, the cautions started falling and we just got put in a bad situation. But I’m glad we had speed with our LeafFilter Gutter Protection Chevrolet. Any other day of the week, the cards could turn our way and we could have a good run. Happy to be in contention for a win and we’ll see what Daytona brings.”

In the end, the young driver showed some very positive skills that could serve him well this season.

See also
Clash For Justin Haley Ends Early After Showing Early Speed: 'It was already a win coming in'

Michael McDowell and Ryan Preece also joined Jones and Haley in the main event. McDowell transferred from his heat race while Preece advanced from the second last chance qualifier race. McDowell sat midpack for most of the afternoon but was able to avoid much of the drama until after the race had ended when he and Martin Truex Jr. collided. The defending Daytona 500 champion wound up 16th.

Preece’s expertise in modified cars shone through this weekend, allowing him to qualify Rick Ware Racing’s No. 15 for the main event. The Berlin, Conn. native raised eyebrows all weekend, carrying speed all the way into the finale. Unfortunately, brake issues ended Preece’s race early and relegated him to a 20th-place finish.

Underdog Weekend Review

As expected, the Next Gen car gave the dark horses of the sport an opportunity to ride the waves in California. Jones’ top five was undoubtedly a pleasant result for fans rooting on the smaller teams. Placing three underdogs in the main event boosted optimism for a solid season among the backmarkers.

Even drivers who didn’t advance did not go down quietly. Ty Dillon was a split second away from having a proper restart and winning the last chance qualifier race, despite a day filled with drama and headaches for the team. He crossed the line first but was later disqualified due to jumping the final restart.

Cody Ware looked the most competitive he ever has in the Cup Series, challenging for a transfer spot at several points. And Jones was not the only underdog on the receiving end of an angry driver’s act. Rookie Todd Gilliland spun Aric Almirola in the first last chance qualifier, earning a pointing finger from Almirola as Gilliland drove by.

The drama of the weekend only boosts the excitement that regular season racing will be back with the Daytona 500 in two weeks.

What to Expect Next

Ladies and gentlemen, it is that time of year! Aside from another off weekend for some football game called the Super Bowl, the “real” action kicks off the week after for Speedweeks, leading up to the Great American Race, the Daytona 500.

Any assumption that only big digs win the race was further debunked last year when McDowell pulled off a Cinderella win in the season opener. With Haley’s knack for superspeedway racing from his NASCAR Xfinity Series days, Jones’ ability to find himself up front at Daytona, plus McDowell’s adrenaline as the defending champion, we should be in for a treat to see who will hoist the Harley J. Earl Trophy on Feb. 20.

What They’re Saying

RACE WEEKEND CENTRAL: L.A.

About the author

Luken Glover arrived on the Frontstretch scene in 2020. He has been an avid NASCAR fan for the majority of his life, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who used to help former team owner Junie Donlavey in his garage. Glover covers news for the site and took over "The Underdog House" column in 2021. In addition to being a college junior, his hobbies include volunteering at church, playing basketball and tennis, racing go-karts, and helping at his high school alma mater.

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DoninAjax

The 23 has an underdog driver in a front-of-the-field car. He deserves to be in a Carl Long car.

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