LOS ANGELES (AP) — Martin Truex Jr. won NASCAR's return to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for its season-opening exhibition race — a sloppy Sunday night extravaganza in which the Wiz Khalifa halftime show might have been the most entertaining part of the event.
Truex took the lead with 25 laps to go in the Busch Light Clash, a 150-lap race that was moved from Daytona International Speedway last year to the Coliseum. NASCAR built a temporary quarter-mile track inside the iconic venue in a bold attempt to try something radically different.
Truex, who contemplated retirement during last year’s winless season, won for the first time since Sept. 11, 2021.
“Last year was a pretty rough season for us with no wins, and to come out here and kick it off this way, really proud of all these guys,” Truex said.
Last year's race was considered a smashing success based on the new fans drawn to the event and excitement over the progressive approach to creating a brand new type of racing.
NASCAR knew it was going to be difficult to duplicate the success in its return and the racing Sunday wasn't great — there were 25 cautions, and laps under yellow didn't count. There were only five cautions in last year's race.
“Last year’s show I felt like was relatively clean and good racing, some bumping, some banging, but we could run long stretches of green flag action,” said Kyle Busch. "Today was, I would call it a disaster with the disrespect from everybody of just driving through each other.
“But it’s a quarter mile. It’s tight-quarters racing. Actually this is probably how it should have gone last year, so we got spoiled with a good show the first year. Maybe this was just normal.”
Truex put Joe Gibbs Racing in victory lane to start 2023 after a horrible close to last year. Coy Gibbs, who essentially ran his father's race team, passed away in his sleep the night before the November season finale. Coy Gibbs' death came just hours after his son, Ty, won NASCAR's second-tier Xfinity Series championship.
Austin Dillon and Busch, in his debut for Richard Childress Racing, finished second and third for RCR. They joined Truex on a podium for a NASCAR-first medal ceremony held below the Coliseum's famed peristyle.
Alex Bowman and Kyle Larson went fourth and fifth for Hendrick Motorsports, and Tyler Reddick was sixth in his debut for 23XI.
“It's tough when it takes 45 minutes to make like six laps,” Bowman said of the messy race. “That was pretty bad when we were just crashing and crashing and crashing.”
Ryan Preece, in his debut race for Stewart-Haas Racing, led 43 laps until a late electrical issue took him out of contention. Before Sunday night, Preece had led a total of 25 laps in 115 Cup races over five seasons. Preece finished seventh.
Bubba Wallace was dominant early for 23XI but was spun late by Dillon and then banged into Dillon after to show his displeasure. He finished 22nd after leading 40 laps.
“I hate it for Bubba, he had a good car and a good run,” Dillon said. “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. Probably was a little too hard.”
The format of the exhibition Clash included heat races and a pair of 50-lap “last chance qualifiers” to help drivers make the 27-car field. Three drivers from each of the LCQ's advanced: Michael McDowell, Christopher Bell and Todd Gilliland advanced from the first race, and Chase Elliott, Ty Gibbs, and AJ Allmendinger advanced from the second.
Those who did not advance to compete in the main event were Brad Keselowski and RFK Racing teammate Chris Buescher, Harrison Burton of The Wood Brothers, Corey LaJoie and Ty Dillon of Spire Motorsports, and Cody Ware and J.J. Yeley for Rick Ware Racing, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. of JTG Racing and B.J. McLeod of Live Fast Motorsports.
Jimmie Johnson made his return to NASCAR on Sunday as team co-owner of Legacy Motor Club, which fields two cars for Erik Jones and Noah Gragson. The seven-time NASCAR champion spent the past two years racing IndyCar and will run a limited scheduled this season that includes the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Johnson was already entered in the Daytona 500 later this month, then said Sunday he will also enter NASCAR's first-ever street course race, scheduled for downtown Chicago in July.
The Cup Series opens Daytona International Speedway a week from Wednesday to begin preparations for the Feb. 19 season-opening Daytona 500.
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