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12/02 2017

NASCAR SEASON ENDS, BUT STOCK CAR DRAMA HEATS UP WITH SNOWBALL DERBY

Kyle B

 

This is the car Kyle Busch will race on Sunday during the 50th Snowball Derby.PHOTO BY MATT WEAVER

 

Several big names have filed entries for the golden anniversary of the beloved event

BY:  MATT WEAVER

Even though the NASCAR season ended two weeks ago, stock car racing itself doesn’t have an offseason.

That was no more apparent than over the past week when Cup Series crew chief Matt McCall won a Late Model stock car race in North Carolina on Sunday before all attention shifted to the Florida Gulf Coast for the Snowball Derby.

The Derby is a 300-lap Super Late Model race that is considered the biggest event in pavement short-track racing. Over 200 cars across seven divisions are participating in the weeklong event that culminates on Sunday with the 50th running of the main event.

The track has an extensive history of attracting existing stars and creating new ones.

In recent years, it has launched the careers of Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, Daniel Hemric and John Hunter Nemechek. Historically, it has lured the likes of Dale Earnhardt Sr., Mark Martin, and Bobby and Donny Allison.

The list of winners reads like a stock car racing Hall of Fame with Donnie Allison, Darrell Waltrip, Rich Bickle, Rick Crawford, Steve Wallace and Kyle Busch all reaching victory lane.

Busch is back for another run at Derby glory this weekend, headlining a three-car effort that includes fellow NASCAR notables Noah Gragson and Cole Rouse. Even 2016 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series entrant Johnny Sauter made the trip south for the golden anniversary of the event.

The event runs from Tuesday night to Sunday night, featuring six practice sessions, qualifying, a last chance race and the 300-lap main event. Each night also features races for local divisions like the Bombers, Sportsman, Outlaw Stocks, Modifieds and Pro Trucks.

They call it the Super Bowl of short-track racing for a reason.

The usual names have been fast in practice up to this point, with Super Late Model ace Bubba Pollard leading Thursday practice. But Busch arrived from the NASCAR Awards Banquet on Friday morning and posted the second quickest lap behind Pollard. Even Late Model champion-turned-Roush Fenway Racing NASCAR prospect Ty Majeski has been solidly in the top five all week.

Unfortunately, Sauter was forced to withdraw after a hard crash during Thursday practice.

But it all leads to Friday night’s qualifying session.

On Friday night, at least 62 drivers will attempt to qualify for 30 guaranteed starting spots. Each driver will get only two timed laps to make it happen. Those unable to qualify inside the top 30 will have to race their way into the 36-car starting lineup via a last-chance race on Saturday afternoon.

The starting lineup comprises the following entrants:

  • The 30 fastest drivers in Friday qualifying
  • Four drivers from Saturday’s 50-lap last-chance race
  • Two provisionals based on Southern Super Series standings and track standings, respectively
  • A 37th starter if a previous winner did not make the field in time trials

This makes Friday night extremely important and extremely terrifying.

For example, Majeski won the pole back in 2015 but knows how quickly elation can shift to nervousness. He inherited the first starting position when flagged pole winner Christopher Bell was disqualified for a weight infraction.

That meant he was sent to the rear and had to race his way through the field just to qualify for a sub-30 starting position in the race.

“It’s definitely not a position you want to be in,” Majeski said. “Fortunately, we’ve always had a good qualifying package here and we’ve done a good job of avoiding that. Hopefully, we can set a good time tomorrow night and just get to work on race runs.”

Cole Butcher is making his first attempt in the Snowball Derby. He knows what’s looming on the horizon, even if he doesn’t show it.

“I kind of like the pressure,” Butcher said. “I feel like it drives me to go faster. We’ll figure out if I make the show or not. I feel pretty confident.”

Former CARS Tour champion Raphael Lessard posted the second fastest time in opening practice but blew a motor. Brandon McReynolds qualified into the top 15 last year but also blew a motor on Thursday.

So now, both have reasons to worry if things aren’t right.

The qualifying order was determined by a blind pill draw. Traditional wisdom states that the later a driver goes out, the cooler the weather is and the faster a lap time he will put down.

However, Pensacola, Florida, is unique for the humidity-based mist that films over the track in December. It makes the racing surface greasy and can come and go at any point of the night.

So that’s just a snapshot of what teams will have to deal with on Friday night. Here’s the qualifying order for the Snowball Derby:

  • Jeremy Pate
  • Donald Crocker
  • John DeAngelis Jr.
  • Logan Bearden
  • Jerry Artuso
  • Dustin Smith
  • Raphael Lessard
  • Stephen Nasse
  • Preston Peltier
  • Kyle Busch
  • Brandon McReynolds
  • Jake Crum
  • Connor Okrzesik
  • Noah Gragson
  • Garrett Jones
  • Jeremy Doss
  • Jeff Firestine
  • Johnny Sauter
  • Ron McDonald
  • Boris Jurkovic
  • Donnie Wilson
  • Brandon Oakley
  • John Coffman
  • Dennis Schoenfield
  • Casey Roderick
  • David Rogers
  • Anthony Cataldi
  • Chase Purdy
  • Stuart Dutton
  • Michael Atwell
  • Corey LaJoie
  • Logan Boyett
  • Derek Kraus
  • Garrett Evans
  • Spencer Davis
  • Harrison Burton
  • Cassius Clark
  • Mason Mingus
  • Augie Grill
  • Joe Aramendia
  • Chandler Smith
  • Cole Rouse
  • Ty Majeski
  • Bubba Pollard
  • Jeff Choquette
  • Tyler Dippel
  • Jeff Choquette
  • Cole Butcher
  • Chris Davidson
  • Steven Davis
  • Kyle Bryant
  • Kyle Plott
  • Rich Bickle
  • Dan Fredrickson
  • Bobby Knox Jr
  • Christian Eckes