Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: NASCAR Underdogs Go for Gold in the Clash at the Coliseum

Welcome to the 2023 season, NASCAR fans! In this column, we will be following the little guys of the sport as they fight their way to being the top dog. The criteria for who is considered an underdog this year is simple: any driver who did not finish in the top 20 in points in 2022 or is a rookie in lesser equipment will initially be on this list, with the exception of RFK Racing. You can find a list of the current 2023 underdogs at the bottom of this column.

Top Dog: Justin Haley

As the NASCAR Cup Series enters its milestone 75th season, the competition in the field is at one of its highest points. Over 20 drivers enter the 2023 season with a legitimate shot to win a race and capture a spot in the playoffs. While the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum (Feb. 5) does not count toward that goal, it is a great opportunity to gain a rhythm. Just ask reigning champion Joey Logano, who won this race a year ago en route to his second title.

The quarter-mile, Los Angeles track adds a level of uncertainty that plays into the hands of underdogs. For Justin Haley, he has looked right at home at times in his two starts in the Clash. After a strong run a year ago, he set out to make it even better this go around.

Haley immediately grabbed attention in qualifying, setting the fastest time to earn a pole position for the first heat race on Sunday afternoon. While he did not win his heat race, the 23-year-old took care of business by finishing in third, good enough to lock a spot in the main event.

Starting ninth, the second-year driver out of Kaulig Racing kept his No. 31 Chevrolet in the top 15 for most of the first half, avoiding the calamity of the event for the most part. At the halfway break, Haley sat in 13th.

In a race that looked like bumper cars for the majority of the event, Haley was able to stay on path, driving into the top 10 with less than 50 laps to go. But in an event of survival, it felt like everyone had to go down at some point, and that is exactly what happened when Haley was turned by Tyler Reddick in the late stages.

See also
The Big 6: Questions Answered after the 2023 Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum

Thanks to the fortitude of the composite bodies and the constant shuffling throughout the field, Haley took advantage of his front bumper and late yellows to work his way forward. When the checkered flag flew under a full moon, Haley crossed the line in 11th, respectively.

It was a solid showing for the Winamac, Ind. native, especially given the chaos of the event. Paired with full-time teammate AJ Allmendinger, Haley now has a seasoned veteran to rely on notes from this season. When the series heads to Daytona International Speedway for a historic Daytona 500, there should be no sleeping on Haley.

Underdogs Bashing in the Clash

In addition to Haley, several other underdogs were able to compete in the main event. Sure to create many highlights in his freshman season, Noah Gragson kicked off his full-time career by locking into his first Clash. After finishing fourth in his heat race, the Legacy Motor Club driver looked like a veteran at times in his Clash debut.

The No. 42 driver inflicted some damage to the right front of his car, but he was able to keep it out of trouble for the most part. While his teammate Erik Jones went out early with damage from hitting the wall, Gragson was able to outlast the 150-lap event and finish a respectable 14th.

Front Row Motorsports carried the momentum from an improved 2022 season by getting both of their drivers into the main event. Both Michael McDowell and Todd Gilliland transferred into the race after finishing first and third in the first last chance qualifier.

Gilliland was in the heat of the battle for most of the event. He found himself trading blows with Kevin Harvick at times, as well as getting shoved into other drivers as an innocent bystander at times. At the halfway break, his No. 38 appeared to be overheating as well. The second-year driver finished 23rd in his main event debut, falling 10 laps short of the finish.

McDowell’s fortunes were not much better. As most drivers were, he was on the receiving end of quite a few licks himself. McDowell brought out the penultimate caution with 10 laps to go when his car ran out of fuel. The No. 34 finished the race in 24th.

Perhaps the underdog with the most frustrating race was Allmendinger. He kicked off his return to full-time racing by advancing out of the second last chance qualifier.

In the main event, Allmendinger got turned just over 40 laps into the race. After going a lap down, the No. 16 driver got his lap back but was turned again in the second half of the race. The 41-year-old was able to survive the late stages of the race to complete the event 20th.

See also
Martin Truex Jr. Prevails in Caution-Filled Running of the Clash

2022-23 Underdog Offseason Review

There was little change among the underdogs during the offseason, though some drivers welcomed new crew chiefs to their box. Let’s dive into some of them.

Front Row Motorsports: After recording a career-best season in 2022, McDowell will have a new shot-caller after former crew chief Blake Harris moved over to Alex Bowman‘s No. 48 team. McDowell will now have Travis Peterson atop the box in 2023. Peterson brings experience as an engineer with RFK racing, Hendrick Motorsports, and JR Motorsports.

Gilliland will also have a new crew chief this season. After his 2022 crew chief Seth Barbour was named FRM’s technical director, Ryan Bergenty will be atop the box for the No. 38 team. Bergenty was the car chief for McDowell last season, and he also brings a winning resume from Furniture Row Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing.

Spire Motorsports: Corey LaJoie will no longer have a different teammate nearly every week. Instead, he will be able to share information with Ty Dillon, who moves into the No. 77 Chevrolet after driving the No. 42 for Legacy Motor Club in 2022. Dillon will be competing in his sixth full-time Cup season, earning seven top 10s and two top fives during that span. Kevin Bellicourt will serve as his crew chief.

Legacy Motor Club: While Jones will not be on this list in 2023, Rookie of the Year candidate Gragson will look to carry the success he found in the NASCAR Xfinity Series to the Cup Series. Gragson will pilot the No. 42 Chevrolet for a team now co-owned by Richard Petty, Jimmie Johnson, and Maurie Gallagher.

Underdogs Sound Off

Haley (13th): “I’m so proud of everyone at Kaulig Racing and where we have come in a short amount of time. The race results weren’t exactly what we wanted, but this weekend was a fun confidence booster. It’s pretty cool to get mine and Kaulig Racing’s first NASCAR Cup Series pole, points race or not, and I think we really showed we belong here. I feel pretty confident about where we are, and I think we are in a good spot to start the season.”

Gragson (14th): “I felt like we had a decent No. 42 Sunseeker Resort Chevy. We just had some damage on the front from the heat race that hurt us with cooling the right front and the brakes. We got really tight in the first half of the race. We started cutting some of it away, but overall, it was just a pinball machine out there. I thought we had some good restarts; good lane choices and we were making our way back up there. We got back up to eighth but just didn’t have enough there. I kind of made some poor decisions there at the end and chose the wrong line. I thought they were all going to stack up there on the bottom, so I went to the outside and they didn’t. It’s just part of the learning curve.”

McDowell (24th):

Small Team Scheme of the Race

Gragson brought a returning sponsor back on his No. 42 Sunseeker Resort Chevrolet. The gray and teal combination made for a smooth scheme to flaunt under the California sun and made it shine under the lights.

2023 Underdog List

Spire Motorsports
Kaulig Racing
Front Row Motorsports
Harrison Burton
Noah Gragson
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Beard Motorsports
Live Fast Motorsports
The Money Team?
Team Hezeburg?

About the author

Luken Glover arrived on the Frontstretch scene in 2020. He has been an avid NASCAR fan for the majority of his life, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who used to help former team owner Junie Donlavey in his garage. Glover covers news for the site and took over "The Underdog House" column in 2021. In addition to being a college junior, his hobbies include volunteering at church, playing basketball and tennis, racing go-karts, and helping at his high school alma mater.

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