By Seth Eggert, Associate Editor
Drastic schedule changes due to inclement weather forced defending NASCAR Cup Series champion Ryan Blaney to claw his way through the field at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
NASCAR officials advanced the Busch Light Clash up a full 24 hours, a first in the sport’s 76-year history. By doing so the series scrapped the planned heat races and last chance qualifying race. Instead, final practice set the 23-car grid with the 22 fastest cars plus the driver highest in points last year.
Blaney’s No. 12 Menards / Great Lakes Flooring Ford Mustang Darkhorse was in a slower group, forcing him to take the provisional. Among those that failed to qualify for the feature race was fellow Championship Four driver Christopher Bell as well as Blaney’s Ford Performance teammate, and 2023 NASCAR Playoffs driver, Chris Buescher.
“The plan was not to take a provisional,” Blaney explained. “Our group was pretty slow. I guess we just couldn’t go, so we were lucky that we got in the race and then we did a good job all night.”
Starting shotgun on the field, the Team Penske driver tactically climbed through the field, keeping the nose of the new Ford Mustang Darkhorse clean throughout the 151-lap race. Strategically choosing lanes allowed Blaney to leapfrog much of his competition to enter the top-five late in the race.
On the final restart in overtime, the High Point, N.C. native lined up fourth. He battled his teammate Joey Logano, as well as Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson for position. In the mad scramble for position, race leader Denny Hamlin cruised to the checkered flag. Blaney may not have gone from ‘worst to first,’ but he did pull off a performance from worst to a podium finish.
“We just kind of stayed clean and our car was fast too, to just kind of drive up through the field,” Blaney stated. “A couple of restarts went our way to where our lanes went. I had a shot. I got a terrible restart on the last one, but I probably wouldn’t have won anyway. We came from a long way back, so it was fun. I think every time I’ve been here, I’ve been spun backwards two or three times, so it’s nice not to have that at the last one. It’s good.”
With the unprecedented schedule change and potential for severe weather on Sunday, Blaney recognized that the crowd wasn’t ideal. However, he still enjoys the idea of competing in Los Angeles, Calif. The 30-year-old believes that the race overall still gets a lot of support from the local community. The veteran driver was also supportive of the NASCAR Mexico Series event.
“(I’ve liked racing in Los Angeles because of) the demographic and the way that they kind of pulled the trigger on today trying to get it in,” Blaney said. “I think that was really smart by NASCAR. Maybe it doesn’t show in the stands just because of what it was, but it gets a lot of support, and you also have the NASCAR Mexico Series here too. I think that’s good as well to kind of grow their side. It’s a neat area to do it in.”
Next for the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series champion is Daytona 500 on Sunday, February 18, 2024 at 2:30 p.m. ET on FOX. The race will also be broadcast on the Motor Racing Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, channel 90.