By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
LOS ANGELES — NASCAR Cup Series drivers got their first look at the temporary track inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum when they practiced Saturday morning.
And they liked what they saw. Not that they had huge, if any, expectations in taking to the quarter-mile oval, which was constructed in the last six weeks with 500 loads of dirt and 4 inches of asphalt, along with temporary fencing.
Cars on track for the first time at the L.A. Coliseum
NASCAR’s first practice session of the season is underway from the new L.A. Coliseum track.
“The racetrack didn’t fly up,” former Cup champion Kevin Harvick said. “Practice went good. The cars all made the corners. You can’t screw it up at this point. The race doesn’t even matter.”
“You’d better go out and freakin’ go in practice”
Kevin Harvick talks about the importance of using Saturday’s practice to prepare for a completely unique experience in Sunday’s race.
Drivers got about 24 minutes of practice time Saturday morning in preparation for the preseason exhibition Clash, which will culminate with a 150-lap main event Sunday afternoon (6 p.m. ET, FOX). They will run single-car runs Saturday night to determine the heat race lineups for Sunday.
NASCAR will take the top four from each of the four 25-lap heat races Sunday afternoon (3 p.m. ET, FOX) to fill the first eight rows of the field. The remaining 20 drivers will be split into two 50-lap last-chance qualifiers, with the top three in each race advancing to the main event. The driver who has not qualified who was highest in 2021 driver points also gets in. Because of that, the driver who doesn’t advance out of the initial heats who is the best in 2021 owner points has the option of even starting the LCQ and instead can just start 23rd.
In addition to the unknowns of a new track, drivers also will deal with the unknowns of the cars. All of last year’s cars are obsolete, as NASCAR overhauled much of the technology and the mechanical specifications for its new “Next Gen” car it will use beginning this season.
The car is designed to be more nimble on road courses, and that technology likely helped drivers navigate the tight turns of the 2.5-degree-banked tiny oval inside one of the nation’s most iconic venues.
“The car turned the corner just better than I thought,” Denny Hamlin said. “There was no way our old car was going to make it around these corners.
“But this one, we talked about how it’s better for road course racing. These corners are very, very tight — tighter than anything that we have. It cornered quite a bit better than what I was anticipating. But other than that, everything was the same.”
Among those drivers who scraped the wall was Chase Elliott, who also was fastest in practice with a lap of 66.890 mph.
“It was a super minor touch of the wall,” Elliott said. “If we did any damage with that, then we’re going to have a long year ahead. But I’m not sure. It was a super light scrape, so I don’t know.”
The new cars have a carbon fiber composite body instead of a steel body. So the body panels should rebound better following an accident, and if not, the panels can be easier to replace than a steel body.
“It really looked like they just could repair some decals on it,” Hamlin said. “They didn’t have to beat anything out. So, it seems like obviously the material that we’re using, … you’ll be able to rub it a little bit more than before, for sure.”
Not everyone was happy. Bubba Wallace was last on the timesheet. But he credited that to experimenting with the new car.
“Changes are time-consuming … the change that we had in mind that we wanted to do, we would have missed the next practice [time we had],” Wallace said. “I’m competitive and when you’re out there getting run over in practice, it’s not good.
“We’ve already made the changes, and we’re ready to go.”
The lap speeds of 65-66 mph were a little higher than expected. Drivers had planned to hit top speed around 80 mph but thought they would have to brake more significantly and earlier to get through the turns.
Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin break down practice
Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin describe how practice went versus what they had expected going into Saturday morning at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
“Lap times were a little bit quicker than many of us expected or anticipated,” said Kyle Busch, who won the Clash last year when it was staged on the Daytona International Speedway road course and was fifth in practice Saturday. “The driving of the car was about as much as I’d expect it to be.
“I think some of the issue is just brakes on entry — making sure you slow down fast enough for the tight confines to be able to make the turn that you have. The acceleration to me was better than I had anticipated.”
But even if it wasn’t better than anticipated, this event, as Harvick alluded to, is much about the spectacle and trying to do something to generate interest in a new — and big — market in downtown Los Angeles.
“Trying new things and having the guts to do it is sometimes hard to do, but the rewards are pretty big on the other side when it works,” Harvick said.
Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!
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