Inside the Most Unique Opening Day in NASCAR History

The vibes surrounding The Clash is a mix of Chili Bowl, Snowball Derby and Long Beach.

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There has never been a NASCAR Cup Series opening day quite like this.

Christopher Bell and Ryan Preece began their Friday afternoon by walking around the makeshift track inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in the moments before making their way to the makeshift garage outside of it.

They were quickly joined by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and they each marveled at the uncanny sight constructed before them. Bell said the vibes were similar to load-in day at the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals -- a track where everyone was pitted a short walk away from the track itself.

Preece has experienced something like this before in pavement racing and had a more apt description for it.

"When I walk through the tunnel, I feel like I'm at a really, really expensive Bowman Gray," Preece said. "You know what I mean, a really beautiful Bowman Gray. Not putting Bowman Gray down, because there is so much history there, but this place has its own history.

"Walking through the tunnel is wild and it’s really exciting that NASCAR is doing something like this."

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. made the Chili Bowl comparison, too.

"It’s totally like the Chili Bowl where there’s the track and the grandstands over there, but everyone is parked over here," Stenhouse said. "And they hang out here in the garage outside the track."

There was something distinctively throwback about the tight confines of the parking lot outside of the Coliseum used as a pit area for the Clash this weekend. Teams were having to jack their cars before squeezing them into their stalls.

"Like a Late Model race, or an ARCA race, we’re out here together in a parking lot trying to figure it out together," Harrison Burton said.

Crews from competing teams were working right on top of each other and it looked like the Snowball Derby in that regard. Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 crew chief Chris Gabehart was at both events and recognized the similarities too.

"That’s true to a point, but unfortunately for me, I haven’t fully been able to appreciate that because I’m dealing with a brand-new race car, new roster, new things and who is going to do what," Gabehart said. "Some of those logistical things are probably washing that out a little bit."

That’s the other part of the most unique opening day in decades -- the car.

The Next-Gen car represents the most significant technological shift for the Cup Series in decades. The car is based off road racing GT3s and Australian Supercars, but also retrofitted to race on ovals. If racing on a quarter mile represents the sport’s past, doing so with a new car in the middle of the second largest downtown in the country represents part of the future.

Walking into the parking lot turned pit area, you immediately recognize a large Honda dealership to one side and the Banc of California Stadium to the other. There’s also a large apartment complex with balconies overlooking what is suddenly an active NASCAR Cup Series paddock.

The LA Coliseum is cattycorner to the garage area -- drivers having to drive their cars out of the parking lot, down St. Hoover Street, and into the Coliseum. It looks like a scene more befitting of the Grand Prix of Long Beach than a NASCAR race.

Stewart-Haas Racing No. 10 crew chief Drew Blickensderfer took his daily run on Friday morning around the
Coliseum and that was the moment the magnitude of this weekend hit him.

"Two Olympics were held here," Blickensderfer said. "I saw the Olympic rings, the torch, all of that and now we're racing here. That's really cool. It's one of the most historic venues in the world."

But then it became time to work, at 2 p.m. local time, and there was much work to be done. It was the first time these cars have officially gone through the inspection process on a race weekend, but SHR No. 4 crew chief Rodney Childers said it was a seamless process.

"It's been like this for the past few months, all the teams and NASCAR working well together to figure everything out," Childers said. "Really, the only issue, was the underneath scanner -- it seems like there's some work to do to get that thing where it needs to be.

"But overall, everything matched all the work we had done at the shop and that makes you feel good because it saves us a lot of time if you can prepare the right way there and unload the right way."

Blickensderfer said NASCAR is learning just as much right now as the teams were.

"NASCAR is as new to this as we are," Blickensderfer said. "You can tell. The teams and NASCAR are working well together to get these cars checked for the first time, knowing we're struggling to get them together and to the race track, and we appreciate the smiling faces at tech.

"Normally, when we show up to the Busch Clash (at Daytona), we've run the old car for such a long time that you know how to cheat on it, do things you're not supposed to, and these things don't have that."

That's because the new Cup Series is an entirely spec platform with every part designed by a single source supplier. The car brought by Hendrick Motorsports is identical to the one constructed by Rick Ware Racing.

The only difference is how the kits were assembled.

The most significant technical challenge experienced on Friday were cars that received parts from the sole suppliers that were not the right size. That’s been a problem throughout the winter and NASCAR has worked with the teams to find solutions where necessary according to Roush Fenway Keselowski No. 6 crew chief Matt McCall.

"I mean, it's been all good," McCall said. "I think everyone is in learning, trying to figure out what to do with things we think isn't the right spec, even though we bought it from the vendor. It's hard to understand what to do there, but NASCAR has been understanding and it's been pretty smooth so far."

Nothing else showed up as out of the ordinary during the first official day rolling cars through the optical scanning station -- beyond the fact that it was in the middle of downtown Los Angeles.

And even that’s been fun for Childers, no matter what the critics say so far.

"Walking through earlier today and seeing the track before we unloaded was incredible," Childers said. "The first time they laid dirt indoors at Tulsa for the Chili Bowl, you can bet someone thought it was a dumb idea and now it's the biggest thing ever.

"Now we just have to see if the racing turns out okay. These cars are so big and heavy. Can we put on a good show or not? Do we tear up a bunch of stuff and all those things. So that part has been really cool.

"Pushing the car through tech was a lot easier than it was with the old car, too. That's been kind of nice."

Sums up the first day of school in NASCAR land for the 2022 season.