There’s a fine line between being in a rut or a groove, and NASCAR revisited groove territory in 2021 following the challenges of the pandemic a year earlier. The combination of some innovation, the redemption story of Kyle Larson, and some well-timed feuds put the sport in a good place.
One year later, NASCAR is aiming big by freshening up the Busch Light Clash. If they pull it off, the sport’s executives could generate new fan interest and establish a marketable tradition. If they fail at the Los Angeles Coliseum, the sport takes a step backward.
NASCAR needed to spruce up the Busch Light Clash
Even if NASCAR wanted to maintain the status quo for the Busch Light Clash, its annual exhibition to open the season, officials would have needed tweaks. The race traditionally featured pole winners from the previous season, but NASCAR has virtually done away with qualifying since the start of the pandemic.
The sport’s leadership decided to leave Daytona International Speedway, where the race had been a highlight of Speedweeks, and set up at the Los Angeles Coliseum. The novelty of a quarter-mile track in a historic stadium could spark unprecedented excitement over an exhibition race that doesn’t count in the standings.
It was a bold decision but also a continuation of NASCAR’s willingness to innovate. A year ago, the Cup Series introduced a dirt race at Bristol and a slew of new road courses. The moves offended some purists but spiced up a schedule too dependent upon intermediate tracks. Both innovations remain on the 2022 schedule.
Why the Busch Light Clash is a make-or-break race for NASCAR
Plenty of people in the sport think they know how Sunday’s Busch Light Clash might play out, but no one is sure. The new Next Gen cars have never been on any track for real racing, and the quarter-mile Coliseum oval is unlike any track that the NASCAR Cup Series has used since 1971. Even with nothing on the line, those are compelling reasons for fans to watch.
A survey indicates that many of the 50,000 fans holding tickets have never seen an auto race in person, and many watching on TV are likely to be first-time viewers attracted by the novelty. Pulling off a successful race can attract new fans for the Daytona 500 in two weeks and carry over for the remainder of the season.
However, logistical breakdowns or boring racing will send the Busch Light Clash back to the drawing board. NASCAR holds an option for two more years at the Coliseum, but the recent talk has been that officials might take the event to other cities the same way the NHL has moved its Winter Classic around.
No potential host will buy into it if the Cup Series can’t pull off a success in Los Angeles. It would almost certainly prod NASCAR into returning the race to Daytona, with the 2022 edition’s bells and whistles stripped away.
The Clash is up against some obstacles
Moving the Busch Light Clash up a week separated it from Speedweeks, but NASCAR is right to slide it into the schedule between the NFL’s conference championship games and the Super Bowl.
Unfortunately, the sports world will return its focus to Super Bowl 56 a day after the race regardless of how exciting it is. Even the Olympics, half a world away in China, will play second fiddle to football.
Most importantly, the quality of the racing itself is a concern. Even with just 23 cars in Sunday’s race, space will be tight on the quarter-mile track. You can’t spell carnage without “car,” and yellow flags figure to be prominent. Too many of them will kill the thrill of a race in which nothing other than pride and a few dollars are on the line.
And, of course, there are the haters. People who know little or nothing about NASCAR love to mock the sport, and they’ll be looking for something to criticize Sunday.
If NASCAR pulls off a win, the criticism will come off as nitpicking. Otherwise, NASCAR’s major schedule innovation for the year goes down in flames with no hope of building up future Busch Light Clashes and putting the brakes on potential creative inspirations for other events.
All stats courtesy of Racing Reference.