Weekly Preview: NASCAR's 2023 Kickoff

Weekly Preview: NASCAR's 2023 Kickoff

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

The 2023 NASCAR season will kick off with the annual exhibition race at the Los Angeles Coliseum, the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum. Most fantasy racing leagues don't recognize this NASCAR exhibition event in the fantasy racing season, but some do along with many daily fantasy racing games and racing pools that form specifically for this event and its unique format. The Busch Clash has historically been held at Daytona International Speedway since its inception in 1979. Last season, NASCAR broke with tradition and moved the event to a purpose-built small oval in the Los Angeles Coliseum. The facility constructed a quarter-mile asphalt oval in the historic venue. The competition is open to all NASCAR Cup Series teams, and the entry list shows that there are 36-drivers entered for this intriguing exhibition event.

The racing for this event will be broken down into four qualifying heat races, and then a main event. The following is an outline of the competition format this weekend at the LA Coliseum.     

On Friday, NASCAR Cup Series competitors will take to the track for practice sessions prior to single car qualifying runs to determine the starting order for the four scheduled heat races. The track will be open to all entrants.

On Saturday, on-track action will begin with four 25-lap heat races consisting of nine cars each. Below is a breakdown on how the heat races will be filled out:

  • The top four fastest qualifiers from Saturday's single vehicle qualifying session will be on

The 2023 NASCAR season will kick off with the annual exhibition race at the Los Angeles Coliseum, the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum. Most fantasy racing leagues don't recognize this NASCAR exhibition event in the fantasy racing season, but some do along with many daily fantasy racing games and racing pools that form specifically for this event and its unique format. The Busch Clash has historically been held at Daytona International Speedway since its inception in 1979. Last season, NASCAR broke with tradition and moved the event to a purpose-built small oval in the Los Angeles Coliseum. The facility constructed a quarter-mile asphalt oval in the historic venue. The competition is open to all NASCAR Cup Series teams, and the entry list shows that there are 36-drivers entered for this intriguing exhibition event.

The racing for this event will be broken down into four qualifying heat races, and then a main event. The following is an outline of the competition format this weekend at the LA Coliseum.     

On Friday, NASCAR Cup Series competitors will take to the track for practice sessions prior to single car qualifying runs to determine the starting order for the four scheduled heat races. The track will be open to all entrants.

On Saturday, on-track action will begin with four 25-lap heat races consisting of nine cars each. Below is a breakdown on how the heat races will be filled out:

  • The top four fastest qualifiers from Saturday's single vehicle qualifying session will be on the pole for each heat race, while cars that qualified fifth through eight will make up the other half of the front row in each heat.
  • The remainder of each field will be filled out using this methodology (Ex. – heat one will be made up cars with qualifying positions of one, five, nine, 13, 17, 21, 25, 29, 33).
  • The top four finishers (16 total cars) from each heat race automatically advance through to the Busch Light Clash, with the winner of heat one winning the pole and the heat two winner earning the outside pole.
  • The winners of heats three and four will fill out the second row, with the remaining order of these 16 cars being determined in the same manner.

The remaining five finishing positions from each heat (20 total cars) that did not advance will continue through to one of two 50-lap Last Chance Qualifying races. Below is a breakdown on how the Last Chance Qualifiers will be filled out:

  • The starting order for these two events will be determined based on finishing positions in the heat races.
  • Those that did not advance from heats one and three will make up the first Last Chance Qualifying race while the second race will be made of up those from heats two and four.
  • The fifth-place finishers from heats one and two will be on the pole in their respective Last Chance Qualifying races. The fifth-place finishers from heats three and four will be on the outside pole.
  • This pattern will continue to fill out 10 cars in each event.
  • The top three finishers (six total cars) from both Last Chance Qualifying races will advance to the Busch Light Clash, filling out positions 21 – 26 of the 27 available positions.

The final spot in the Busch Light Clash is reserved for the driver who finished the highest in the 2022 points standings who does not transfer on finishing position in the heat races or Last Chance Qualifying races. All other drivers will be eliminated from competition in the main event.

This exhibition race will be unlike any other pre-season exhibition race due to the unique venue and unique competition format for the race weekend. The teams that show up with fast race cars right off the hauler, and with capable short track drivers will be the ones to beat. For our statistical analysis, we've looked back at the past season of short track racing in the Next Gen car to get a feel for our top contenders this week.  Below are the statistics for the last five Cup Series events on tracks under one-mile in length.  These include Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond.

DriverWins Top 5'sTop 10'sLaps LedAvg Finish
William Byron1343345.0
Christopher Bell1343566.6
Chase Elliott0242408.2
Kevin Harvick123558.6
Kyle Larson0331139.0
Denny Hamlin1342309.4
Ross Chastain0238010.4
Ryan Blaney02414310.8
Joey Logano01322311.6
Chris Buescher12216911.6
Chase Briscoe0022513.2
Aric Almirola0023616.0
Kyle Busch002117.6
Martin Truex Jr.0128017.8
Austin Cindric000017.8
Alex Bowman001018.0
Bubba Wallace001018.4
Austin Dillon012118.6
Brad Keselowski00010918.8
Daniel Suarez000019.0

This race and the inaugural event last season are completely different than any Busch Light Clash before it due to the extremely short track wrinkle and multiple qualifying heat race format. From the recent stats above we get a very clear picture of who has become the leaders in this style of racing in the new generation stock car. We'll also cast a discriminating eye towards the results from last season's Clash in the Coliseum to see who had success in this event one year ago. William Byron and Christopher Bell dominated these facilities last season in the new car. Those two drivers will be a focus of our attention this week. There are some outside contenders in the mix, and we'll visit those as well. Short track racing can get pretty wild at times, and this ovals newness and uncertainty will add to that mix. We have to keep that possibility in mind as we examine the field.

This exhibition race is unlike any of the normal Cup Series events, so we'll handle the prognostications a bit different as well. We'll give you our picks for who'll contend for the win in the Busch Light Clash main event of 150 laps. That field will consistent of 27 drivers who advance from the earlier rounds, and these are the ones who we see as the top threats to win the first race of 2023 and take the big purse in this Saturday evening spectacle.

The Contenders – Drivers in the hunt for the win

Christopher Bell – One of last season's most successful short track drivers was Bell and his No. 20 Toyota team. He finished a respectable eighth-place in the Clash at the Coliseum last year and then went on to grab one victory (late-season Martinsville), a runner-up finish at Richmond and over 350 laps led on ovals less than one-mile in size. Bell's 6.6 average finish on these tracks was an exceptional mark. The late-season win at Martinsville is significant too, because it was on a similar, flat oval and it was a dominant performance very late last season. Heading into the 2023 campaign, Bell has to be viewed as one of the more dangerous short track drivers. Names such as Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson may draw more attention, but make no mistake about it, Bell is a heavyweight puncher in this style of racing.           

William Byron – Byron may have been a bit upstaged by his more heralded teammates at Hendrick Motorsports last year, but he was a fantastic performer on short tracks in the new generation stock car last season. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet led well over 300 laps on these style tracks in 2022 and grabbed an early-season victory at Martinsville Speedway. Additionally, Byron grabbed four Top 10's on these bull rings, posting a stellar 5.0 average finish. In the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum last season, the Hendrick Motorsports youngster finished an impressive sixth-place in this inaugural exhibition event. In the field of strong contenders for this season-opening exhibition, do not overlook Byron. He has homerun potential in this race.     

Chase Elliott – Elliott has the short track racing reputation that makes him a top wagering favorite for this event in the LA Coliseum. His stats on these small ovals last year also include two Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes along with close to 250 laps led. The average finish of 8.2 is an admirable mark for sure. While Elliott's performance in last season's Clash was mediocre, 11th-place in the 23-car field, he'll surely have learned quite a bit about this very small oval since that outing. The driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet has won at the similar flat oval of Martinsville Speedway (2020) and he's led close to 1,000 laps at Martinsville in his eight-season Cup Series career. This is an event and special track where Elliott can shine.

Joey Logano – Last season's inaugural winner at the LA Coliseum returns to defend his race crown. Logano took control from Kyle Busch late and led the final 35 laps to secure the victory in the Busch Light Clash. A timely caution flag would set up a restart and dash to the finish. Logano would do a great job defending and would pull out to a near 1-second victory over Busch. The Penske Racing star also nabbed second- and sixth-place finishes in the two Martinsville Speedway races, which are a good barometer for this event and track. Logano seemed to be pretty strong on last season's short tracks, especially the less-banked variety. The 2022 NASCAR Cup Series champion carries a lot of momentum into the LA Coliseum this Saturday.   

Kyle Larson – Last season was a bit of a slow start for Larson, but by the final third of last year he'd warm up to the new generation stock car. This was evident on the series' short tracks as Larson would nab pole positions late in the year at Richmond and Martinsville and he'd finish a strong runner-up in the Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet finished a strong fifth-place in last season's Busch Light Clash in the Coliseum, so Larson has some strong performance and experience in last season's exhibition race. The Hendrick Motorsports star and 2021 Cup Series champion have a lot to prove in this upcoming campaign. Kicking it off with a win in the LA Coliseum wouldn't be surprising at all. 

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin ran into trouble and finished dead last in last season's Clash, so the Joe Gibbs Racing star will be looking to erase that memory. No better way than to grab a win in the sequel in the LA Coliseum. Hamlin was strong on the short tracks after his Clash disappointment last season. He would pick up a win at Richmond early in the campaign, lead well over 200 laps and grab three Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes on the bull rings. The 11.2 average finish was only hurt by one poor outing in the spring Martinsville race. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota has been a strong performer on short tracks over the years, and his five-career victories at Martinsville underscore this fact. Hamlin will be a driver to contend for the win this Saturday evening in Los Angeles.

Kyle Busch – While Busch had a down season overall in 2022, he did produce some wonderful performances on short tracks. He grabbed three Top-10 finishes on these size ovals last season and he dominated a large portion of last season's Clash. Busch led 64 laps and set the pace most of the way in this event one year ago before succumbing to Joey Logano late. The veteran driver would still finish runner-up in last season's Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum. The move from Gibbs to Richard Childress Racing should spur and motivate him to better performance in 2023. He'll be motivated to make a big splash in his first race in the No. 8 RCR Chevrolet. Busch is an eight-time Bristol winner, six-time Richmond winner and two-time Martinsville winner. He's practically legendary when it come short track racing.     

Ryan Blaney – Blaney went winless last year, but he'll look to become a closer in 2023 to erase that frustration from 2022. The Penske Racing youngster will start with a strong performance in the LA Coliseum. Blaney didn't fare to well in this event one year ago (17th-place) but he was strong in his other short track outings. The driver of the No. 12 Ford grabbed two Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes on these size tracks with close to 150 laps led and a very respectable 10.8 average finish. Blaney would finish the next-to-last event of last season a strong third-place at the similarly flat short track of Martinsville Speedway. This young driver and team are hungry and have a lot of motivation to win in the upcoming season. It wouldn't be surprising at all to see Blaney upstage some of the bigger names Saturday in the LA Coliseum.      

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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