Top NASCAR Cup drivers eager to start season in L.A.

It truly will be a Clash of the Titans.

No, that’s not a reference to the 1981 film steeped in ancient Greek mythology. It concerns the third iteration of the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum, a short-track NASCAR Cup Series exhibition race that features the titans of stock car racing, whose talent is no myth at all.

On Sunday at 8 p.m. ET, a field of 23 qualifying Cup drivers will compete for bragging rights on a quarter-mile, purpose-built race track inside iconic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. As an addition to the program this year, the rising stars and veterans of the NASCAR Mexico Series will run a 150-lap race at 4:30 p.m. ET.

The Clash will be broadcast on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“This is a tremendous win for our fans and our sport,” said Ben Kennedy, NASCAR senior vice president, racing development and strategy, and the principal architect of NASCAR’s expansion into stadium-based racing.

“Not only will the fans see the stars of the NASCAR Cup Series in action, they will also bear witness to the talent and skill that is found within the NASCAR Mexico Series. I can’t think of a better way to begin our 2024 season.”

Though this is the third running of the Clash in Los Angeles, the event as the kickoff to Speedweeks in Daytona dates to 1979. Among active drivers, Denny Hamlin is the only three-time winner of the Clash, starting with his rookie season in 2006 and adding victories in 2014 and 2016.

The bullring in the L.A. Coliseum, however, is a far cry from 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway, where Hamlin scored his three Clash wins.

“It’s a unique atmosphere and a fun race to kick the season off,” said Hamlin, who finished ninth after leading 26 laps of 150 last year. “It doesn’t really translate to anything else we do because the track is so small, but it’ll be fun to knock some of the rust off from not being in the car since November.

“I’m looking forward to it. Our team is looking forward to it. So, we’ll just see what we unload with on Saturday and hopefully get ourselves locked into the main event with a good starting spot. From there, you have to stay up front and stay out of trouble to have a shot at the end.”

That’s exactly what Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Martin Truex Jr., did last year. The driver of the No. 19 Toyota started second, took the lead from Ryan Preece on Lap 126 and won the Clash by .786 seconds over runner-up Austin Dillon.

The triumph put Truex in a two-driver club with Joey Logano, winner of the inaugural Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum in 2022.

If the size of the track is unique to Cup racing, so is the race format. The starting field will be set from four 25-lap heat races on Saturday, with the starting lineups for the heats based on practice speeds earlier in the day.

The top five finishers in each heat transfer to Sunday’s main event, with the winners of Heats 1 and 2 making up the front row for the Clash. The top two finishers in a 75-lap Last Chance Qualifier on Saturday will be added to the field in positions 21 and 22, with the final starting spot in the Clash going to the driver finishing highest in 2023 championship points who does not transfer into the main event though the heats or Last Chance Qualifier.

Short-track ace and Sunoco rookie Josh Berry, who succeeds Kevin Harvick in the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, is looking forward to his first appearance in the Clash.

“I’m definitely excited to go to the Coliseum,” Berry said. “I think it’s a really cool event — having watched the races there, it’s really fun to get the chance to compete there. I think, for the race, it’s a good opportunity for us to run well.

“Obviously, with my background being in short-track racing, I think it should help, but I definitely think it will be a unique experience.”