Clash at the Coliseum? More like Crash at the Coliseum.
NASCAR's 2023 season-opening exhibition featured a whopping 16 cautions on Sunday during the 150-lap main event. Seemingly everyone became a victim of bumper cars gone wrong, from pole sitter Aric Almirola to former NASCAR champions like Chase Elliott.
You always need a little luck on Sunday to succeed. For Martin Truex Jr., that type of good fortune was long overdue.
Truex went winless in 2022, missing the playoffs after making the Championship 4 in four of the last five seasons. Despite scoring the seventh-most points all year, he found every which way to lose a race, from blowing a tire out front at Texas to breaking a water pump while leading the Southern 500.
"Just so many times that we felt like we were doing the right things and probably should have won a couple races, and they got away from us," Truex explained Sunday night. "That was very, very frustrating. Knowing that we were doing everything we needed to do to win, it sucked."
Add in a public offseason breakup with longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex and Truex enters 2023 "mad" (his words) and determined to fight back to the top.
"I think last year was a big disappointment for all of us," Truex's crew chief, James Small, said. "He knew he's way better than that, and he's just ready to get going. We all just want to prove everyone wrong."
Mission accomplished thus far, as Truex was victorious in this Clash exhibition filled with celebrity sightings (UFC's Chuck Liddell, Grand Marshal Rob Lowe, among many other) that failed to find a rhythm despite a halftime concert by Wiz Khalifa. The rapper's signature hit, Black and Yellow turned into Spin and Yellow on track: the first 11 green-flag laps after that break produced six caution flags.
"I would call it a disaster," said third-place finisher Kyle Busch about how the race played out. "The disrespect from everybody of just driving through each other and not just letting everything kind of work its way out."
Truex was one of the few who stayed patient, biding his time while others like Bubba Wallace and Ryan Preece took their shot. As they faded down the stretch, the No. 19 Toyota came alive and then fended off a challenge by Busch, another motivated veteran after getting dumped by Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of last season.
In the end it was Truex, still with JGR, who notched the first victory in what he hopes will be a 2023 climb back into championship contention.
"Just have a lot of fire in my belly," he said, "To go out and change what we did last year."
Green: Ryan Preece -- The former modified champion from Berlin, Conn. pulled a slide job on the Coliseum field, surging from 16th all the way into the lead before an electrical problem short-circuited his chances. In just one start, Preece led a race-high 43 laps in the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford; that's more than former driver Cole Custer led in three full seasons running that car.
Yellow: Richard Childress Racing -- A 2-3 finish while shaking off the cobwebs is none too shabby for a team welcoming Kyle Busch. But both he and Austin Dillon had their chances in a race where second place is the first loser (this race pays no points as an exhibition).
Red: RFK Racing -- Last fall's trendy up-and-coming team hoped to enter 2023 with momentum after winning the Bristol Night Race with Chris Buescher during the playoffs. Instead, neither Buescher nor Brad Keselowski qualified for the main event, the second straight year this Ford team has struggled out in L.A.
Speeding Ticket: Cautions breeding cautions -- Several drivers complained about the lack of grip in L.A., cooler weather making it tougher to get their tires right. The quarter-mile track is also designed to make contact the norm, not the exception.
But an average of less than 10 green-flag laps all night before a caution? That's the type of choppy, uncontrolled race that looks more like bumper cars at the county fair than a NASCAR event. It led to several weird wrecks where the car who spun out was the innocent victim of a bump that happened one, sometimes two cars behind them.
"There's just no repercussions," Denny Hamlin said, "To driving in and using the bumper of the car in front of you."
There were enough wrecks to cause a season's worth of rivalries in this one: Kyle Busch vs. Joey Logano. Ross Chastain vs. Denny Hamlin. Erik Jones vs. Michael McDowell.
But the one between Austin Dillon and Bubba Wallace took center stage. The duo got battling for second late in the race when Dillon spun Wallace out to cause the final caution.
Bubba Wallace goes around after a battle with Austin Dillon! https://t.co/ob15TaTQ2X pic.twitter.com/DP0DTd7BlY— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) February 6, 2023
"I hate it for Bubba," Dillon said. "He had a good car and a good run. But you can't tell who's either pushing him or getting pushed. I just know he sent me through the corner and I saved it three times through there, released the brake and all kinds of stuff, and then when I got down, I was going to give the same [contact]. Probably was a little too hard."
Wallace, who finished 22nd, had a far different view of what transpired.
"The 3 just never tried to make the corner," Wallace said. "He's just always running into my left rear."
Wallace then followed up with a tweet, although he remains excited about what the speed he showed in L.A. means for the rest of the season.