NASCAR’s Surprising Success at the Coliseum is Bad News for Daytona Speedweeks

The showbiz axiom tells entertainers to avoid following animal acts or children onto the stage because they invariably set the bar high with the audience. Daytona Speedweeks has the NASCAR version of that problem, and it’s going to be an issue next week and beyond.

The novelty of a quarter-mile track, Ty Dillon’s take-no-prisoners driving, and elimination heats putting top Cup Series stars under pressure to perform thrilled the crowd at the Los Angeles Coliseum and those watching on TV.

Attention is about to shift 3,000 miles to the east, and Daytona International Speedway has a problem: Five days of action leading up to the Daytona 500 are no match for the five hours of the just-concluded Busch Light Clash.

People are sure to notice.

NASCAR’s Busch Light Clash is a tough act to follow

Viewership for the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Coliseum soared over recent years, with 4,283,000 people tuning in, according to preliminary ratings. That was a 168% improvement over 2021 and the best number the event has pulled in since 2016.

Equally important, Sunday was a critical success. NASCAR gambled by laying down a quarter-mile track in the historic stadium, but the investment in excess of $1 million paid off. The format of heats and last-chance qualifiers, normally only seen on Saturday nights at local dirt tracks, created drama.

Ty Dillon, winless in 166 points-race starts in his Cup Series career, shook the place up with a desperate bid to make it to the main, and big names like Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch fell by the wayside. Throw in performances by Pitbull before the racing and Ice Cube during an intermission, and fans were seeing a vastly different NASCAR.

Daytona Speedweeks can forget about the Busch Light Clash returning

The Busch Light Clash was a staple of Daytona Speedweeks from its debut in 1979 through 2021. NASCAR ran it as a race on the oval for the previous season’s pole winners until last year, when the event moved onto the road course.

The Clash started as a short and sweet 50-mile challenge and then grew to 175 miles in 2001, and that was a mistake. The old 20-lap race created immediate urgency for the drivers and gave Daytona Speedweeks an event completely different than the assorted other competitions leading up to the Daytona 500.

Once it went to 175 miles, the Clash wasn’t significantly different from the duels, the Xfinity race, or from the big event itself. After too many years of it no longer feeling special, NASCAR officials decided late last year to move the Clash to the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Even though last week’s racing was an unqualified success, there’s no guarantee the Clash will even return to Los Angeles in 2023. Emboldened by the positive fan reaction, NASCAR could try moving it to another venue to stir up even more attention in another market as Joey Logano defends his title.

But it’s inconceivable that it would go back to Daytona any time soon.

NASCAR needs to reimagine Daytona Speedweeks

NASCAR had no way of knowing that the Busch Light Clash in Los Angeles would go over so well, and now it has a problem. The big topic at Daytona Speedweeks, leading up to the Daytona 500 on Feb. 20, will be the Next Gen car. The practices, qualifying, and Great American Race will be the first real test of the hardware, so Next Gen will make this month’s six days in Florida compelling over several days.

But what does NASCAR do beginning in 2023 to make the days leading up to the Daytona 500 as interesting as the five hours at the Coliseum last weekend?

Wednesday night single-car qualifying, which sets the front row for Sunday’s 500, is the only distinctive item on the week’s schedule. Everything else in Groundhog Day-ish:

  • The 150-mile duels on Thursday.
  • The 250-mile trucks race on Friday.
  • The 200-mile ARCA race and 300-mile Xfinity race on Saturday.
  • The Daytona 500 on Sunday.

All of the prelims matter to the drivers and teams involved, and the 500 is the biggest Cup Series race of the season until the Championship 4. But that’s 1,400 miles on the oval, and none of it will have the unique feel that the Busch Light Clash just delivered.

NASCAR needs to fix that to keep Speedweeks feeling special.

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