Next Gen Era Begins with Much-Needed High Fives and Fun

Communication and collaboration was key to making the Clash a success.

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Kyle Busch and Austin Dillon had just wrapped up their post-race press conference when they turned the corner in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum locker room and came across Ben Kennedy and Steve O’Donnell.

They greeted the senior level NASCAR executives with enthusiastic high fives.

It worked!

After months of scrutiny over several industry initiatives, everything came together on Sunday in Southern California, and there was genuine joy across the sport in the aftermath of the inaugural Coliseum Clash.

"I thought it was awesome," Dillon said while snacking on a cookie and Coca-Cola.

The stadium was filled to 75 percent capacity and fans seemed genuinely thrilled by both the racing product and pre- and mid-race entertainment programs headlined by Pitbull and Ice Cube. The quarter mile race track emulated the grassroots where most drivers began their careers, but within a venue capable of reaching a wide variety of demographics.

"I thought it was great," Busch said. "I don't know if it was because of the stadium aspect, but there was more of a roar coming from fans than say a mile-and-a-half (track) and we noticed it."

The competition was fierce from the moment teams unloaded on Friday, but everyone seemed to be having a tremendous amount of fun in Los Angeles, and this was an important way to begin a new era for the NASCAR Cup Series.

"When you look at this Next Gen car, all the pressure that was on, really the entire industry, all the long hours coming into this, I think a lot of us in the industry forgot that we are in a pretty cool sport," O'Donnell said. "It is fun to be a part of.

"This event delivered. I think it delivered on that. You saw it in the drivers, the industry, saw it with a lot of folks in the media. I think a lot of folks had fun."

Fun.

It was a much-needed experience, because fun had somewhat fallen in a limited supply over the past calendar year in the build-up to the next generation Cup Series car. The industry had debated ad nauseum how the car would be constructed, the process in which to purchase parts from vendors, and which rules package the car would use across the schedule.

The tension reached a boiling point during the preseason test session at Charlotte Motor Speedway on November 17. The cars were not racing the way anyone had hoped, morale amongst crew members was at a low, and drivers felt like their input was falling on deaf ears.

NASCAR responded by calling an emergency meeting amongst all the stakeholders in Nashville during the awards banquet and hashed out a new path forward. A different rules package was agreed upon, a better understanding of the challenges associated with constructing these cars during a supply chain crisis was reached and a stronger bond was forged while celebrating in the Music City.

READ MORE: Recap and results from the Coliseum

That celebration continued into Los Angeles, where the vibes were considerably higher during the unloading and inspection process on Friday, and carried into the weekend of racing, where most everyone seemed to leave with a positive impression of The Clash.

If all things Next Gen are going to be a success, O’Donnell needed a degree of buy-in and support from his competitors, and that stronger collaboration bore positive fruit through this first weekend. That means moving on from some of the tensions of the past several years.

"You look at the rules package we had that I know was unpopular to some, but to a lot of our fans, it was popular," O’Donnell said. "That was a difference kind of between NASCAR and the drivers. It was tough at times.

"I think the process we went through with the drivers and the industry on this new rules package, working together, landing where we did was because of a real trust factor built in prior to coming to the Coliseum."

O’Donnell says drivers understand the importance of this new journey and finally feel like they are part of it in a meaningful way. There may still be hurdles and obstacles, but O’Donnell feels better about their means of doing it together with the drivers and teams.

"I really do feel like we've got a much better relationship in terms of listening but also having an understanding when we make a certain decision, that there is some reason behind it," O’Donnell said. "Because we went left, you wanted to go right, doesn't mean we didn't listen, but there were some reasons we did it."

Race winner Joey Logano recognizes the tonal shift over the past two months and is proud of how everyone got here together.

"You look back, like you said, the meeting in Nashville, I wouldn't say we were all having fun at that point," Logano said. "There were a lot of concerns. There still are concerns, don't get me wrong. There are a lot of ‘what ifs’ in front of us, but now we’ve proven we can get through this and I’m certain the Daytona 500 is going to go well at the same time."

Before qualifying on Saturday, Kevin Harvick said he didn’t think the Coliseum Clash could go wrong by that point. That proved prescient, but not everyone immediately bought into NASCAR’s vision here either.

Owing to the trust, and give-and-take from the drivers and sanctioning body, defending champion Kyle Larson owes NASCAR a ‘you told us so,’ too.

"I feel like, a lot of the time, us drivers think we’re way smarter than NASCAR," Larson said with a laugh. "Or that we could have done a better job than them with whatever they were doing. Hats off to NASCAR on this."

Hats off, and maybe a high five, too.