Denny Hamlin wins speedily rescheduled NASCAR Clash at the Coliseum

Denny Hamlin poses with his troph after winning the Busch Light Clash NASCAR exhibition auto race.
Denny Hamlin celebrates with the winner's trophy following his victory in the NASCAR Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum on Saturday night. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Saturday’s Busch Light Clash likely will not be remembered for Denny Hamlin’s win, but for the extraordinary effort made by NASCAR to get this season-opening race in the books ahead of yet another “once in a …” weather event.

NASCAR moved the race up a day to Saturday night with just a few hours’ notice, knowing the chances of running on late Sunday afternoon into the evening were next to nothing given the forecast.

Hamlin looked as if he could win his fourth Clash with 10 laps to go as he took advantage of a rivalry between Ty Gibbs and Joey Logano and a crash by Michael McDowell to give him the inside spot in third on the next restart. He darted to the front and took the checkered flag, but not before one other delay caused by Gibbs crashing.

Read more: NASCAR's Mexico Series makes a stop at the L.A. Coliseum in first U.S. race since 2015

The race is worth no Cup points and most drivers believe it tells them nothing about their cars, but it was a great way for NASCAR to connect with the Los Angeles audience, its largest of any market. The season really starts in two weeks at the Daytona 500. Kyle Busch was second followed by Ryan Blaney and Logano.

“I think it’s very entertaining and sometimes it’s real frustrating when you’re out there because it’s a tight bull ring and you’ve got big cars and they’re sliding around, especially on refires with old tires, you’re sliding a lot,” Logano said.

The events of this weekend, a race with virtually no fans and relegated to the secondary network of FS1, leave the sport in Los Angeles in a precarious position. This is the last year of a three-year contract for the Clash at the Coliseum and no decision has been made for next year.

Cars race around the Coliseum during the NASCAR Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum on Saturday night.
Cars race around the Coliseum during the NASCAR Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum on Saturday night. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

That, coupled with the fact that the Fontana track rebuild has no start date, might leave Southern California without a NASCAR race for the first time since 1996 (not counting the COVID-19 year of 2021).

NASCAR did everything it could to make this year’s event a success, pointing to its Latino audience, but in the end, the Mexico Series race was pushed to after the Busch Light Clash and lost amid Southern California dealing with another climate crisis. NASCAR made attendance free Saturday, even before the change. But, with little notice, it did little to attract an audience.

NASCAR drivers were OK with the decision.

“I think it’s awesome,” said Chase Elliott, who was voted the most popular driver six years in a row. “I think it’s one of the most logical decisions we’ve made as an industry, potentially ever. I appreciate it. I know a lot of the industry personnel really appreciates the willingness to make a change like that.”

Like it or not, television makes a lot of the decisions when it comes to sports. NBC had looked at this race as counterprogramming to CBS’s Grammys, held 31/2miles away at Arena.

“Whatever the relationship they have created with Fox and to be able to even have that conversation, I think, speaks a pretty good volume,” Elliott said. “This stuff doesn’t need to be complicated, right? And I think a lot of times when you get TV and corporate things involved, we overcomplicate things and that’s just kind of where we are. It’s just really nice to see that they have a personal relationship enough to say: ‘Hey, look, tomorrow is not really ideal for anyone involved — for the fans or industry personnel alike.’ I really think highly of the decision and the ability to be able have conversations to consider something like this.”

Driver Kyle Larson agreed with that assessment.

“It’s great that we get to race,” Larson said. “I’m sure NASCAR is taking a huge hit on money being made or whatever now, but at least we get to get the event in and all that. I was not expecting to run any more than a heat race tonight.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.