The NASCAR Cup Series drivers are advertised as the best drivers in America. You wouldn’t know it by the first two races of the season.
Don’t take that wrong, there is the utmost respect for every driver who makes it to the Cup level. Most have a championship history of racing back to their days as kids driving karts. They’ve progressed through the ranks to get to the top level of stock car racing.
There have been great storylines with Martin Truex Jr. and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. making their way back to victory lane, but the Busch Clash at the Coliseum and the Daytona 500 have been downright ugly.
The Clash looked like the entry-level division at your local short track when there are drivers behind the wheel for the first time. The racing in the main event couldn’t go a lap or two without someone running over someone else to cause a caution.
In fairness, it’s a tough track to navigate with the shape of that quarter-mile track inside the Los Angeles Coliseum. The cars get bunched up, much worse than Martinsville or Bristol, and bumping someone out of the way is how some drivers see their only option to move forward.
Kyle Busch was an exception after he got wrecked by Joey Logano. His charge from the back of the pack to second place was impressive. It was nice to see Truex, the 2017 NASCAR champion, back in victory lane after going winless last season.
With California Speedway shut down in 2024 to be reconfigured from a 2-mile speedway to a short track, there was talk of a points race at the Coliseum. One understands the importance of NASCAR being in the nation’s second-largest market. NASCAR goes all out to promote it as more than a race, but a true event.
Most of the drivers scoffed at the idea of a points race for good reason. There was plenty of beating and banging for sure, but it was far from good racing.
For pure racing, a better option would be Irwindale Speedway, a half-mile banked oval located 24 miles from the L.A. Coliseum. That’s not an option unfortunately as NASCAR wants the race inside the city and Irwindale has a seating capacity for only 6,000 spectators.
The Daytona 500 is nicknamed the “Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing” and the “Great American Race.” It is NASCAR’s biggest event, and signifies the start of the regular season. It’s usually a break from the cold winter with the backdrop of sunny central Florida.
With the exception of last fall’s race at Talladega, racing with the use of tapered spacers to impact speeds, has become predictable. Most of the race is either single-file or stacks of two with drivers logging miles. You get to 40-50 laps to go and the intensity ramps up.
Once there are 20 laps to go, it starts getting crazy and the big wrecks are soon to come. That was the case Sunday as it has been the last few years. In five of the last six Daytona 500s, there has been a big crash on the final lap; three times it involved the second-place driver wrecking the leader.
The unpredictable nature has led to surprise winners the last three years — Michael McDowell, Austin Cindric and Stenhouse. Certainly, it’s the good underdog story when teams like Front Row Motorsports with McDowell and JTG Daugherty Racing with Stenhouse beat the larger organizations.
Another positive is fans always want to see close competition and the races at Daytona and Talladega usually come down to the wire. Sunday’s finish was unsatisfying, however, with the winner decided by a ruling of who was in front when the button was pushed to activate the caution lights.
It would’ve been more compelling to see Stenhouse, Joey Logano and Christopher Bell race to the finish line. Understand, there’s the issue of driver safety and how seconds matter when there’s the potential for a serious injury after a big wreck. In this case with the three well out front of the accident, it appeared a race to the finish would have been OK.
At the end of the day, NASCAR is going to err on the side of safety as they should. Regardless, it’s a great win for Stenhouse and his team. This might just be the boost the 35-year-old, Memphis-born driver needs for a breakout Cup season.
The second race of the season at California Speedway is seen as a better indicator of which drivers and teams could be major contenders throughout the year.
Kyle Larson, a two-time winner on the 2-mile oval and the defending race winner, is listed as the pre-race favorite. Busch is the leader among active drivers with four wins. Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who is not competing at California this weekend, holds the overall track record with six wins.
Other active drivers with wins are: Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Alex Bowman and Truex. Defending series champion Joey Logano is yet to win at California despite seven top-five finishes in 15 starts. Denny Hamlin has won three poles at the Fontana track, but has just two top-five finishes in 20 starts.
Erik Jones could be a good darkhorse pick. The driver of the No. 43 Legacy Motor Club Chevrolet has three top-10 finishes in five California races. His 10.2 average finish is second only to 9.8 for Busch.