Kyle Busch turned his glitter into gold.
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series competitor won the 50th annual Snowball Derby and hoisted the Tom Dawson trophy Sunday at Pensacola, Florida’s Five Flags Speedway courtesy of a perfect game plan.
After leading a handful of laps just before the midway point of the 300-lap asphalt Super Late Model race , Busch timed his charge to the checkered flag when it mattered most.
Running third with 22 laps remaining in the country’s most prestigious short-track race, Busch passed short track ace Bubba Pollard for second before getting by then-leader Jeff Choquette on lap 284.
Busch pulled away, as Choquette and Pollard assumed the other podium finishes in second- and third-place finishes, respectively.
“Everybody dreams of winning the Snowball Derby,” said Busch, who has now twice won the Derby. “But, this one is definitely extra special. I’m pumped. This is so cool.”
The eight-year span between Busch’s first and latest victories tied Gary St. Amant for the longest stretch in Derby history.
A standing-room-only crowd cheered when Busch climbed out of his car in victory lane and punctuated an historic victory with an exuberant fist pump.
The response made a lasting impression on the NASCAR wheelman, who became the first non-teenager to win the race dating back to local hero Johanna Robbins’ victory in 2010.
“It’s amazing the way this community supports this race,” Busch, 32, said. “I never ran anything this big when I was coming up through the ranks.”
When a driver performs his best as Busch did Sunday, it’s easy to admire, no matter the pedigree.
Busch, who only led 30 laps, watched an entertaining back-and-forth battle play out ahead of him between Choquette and Pollard when the field restarted with 233 laps completed following the seventh and final caution of the afternoon.
With 50 laps remaining, Busch trailed the leaders by a half-straightaway. But like the professional he is, Busch was saving his stuff for the end.
Tire management and preserving equipment are common refrains drivers repeat about winning at the half mile oval. Busch put on a clinic Sunday.
“I didn’t think there was going to be 66 green flag laps,” said Busch, who led a total of 99 laps when he won in 2009. “I figured there was going to be some guys getting into guys, but that didn’t happen. Once I got up there (to Choquette and Pollard), I knew I had enough to get by them.”
It was a bitter pill for Pollard to swallow. After capturing his second career Snowflake 100 for Pro Late Models on Saturday night, the 30-year-old driver from Senoia, Georgia was looking for an unprecedented weekend sweep.
Pollard led the most laps Sunday (162), but once again fell short of winning the ever-elusive Derby despite posting his best career finish in the race.
“It was a great weekend all-in-all,” said Pollard, who was also surprised the race finished without another caution. “We’ll keep working, keep digging and come back next year to try again.”
Choquette was out of racing a few years ago, turning to his family’s land development business. When the Jett Concrete Team gave him a call to drive the red No. 9, Choquette turned a new chapter to his driving career.
Choquette had a shot at three titles during Derby week, but wrecked in the Modifieds Derby on Friday and finished fourth behind Pollard in the Snowflake.
While upset at going winless for the weekend, Choquette didn’t diminish the importance of his second career runner-up at the Derby.
“The 51 (Busch) was really good,” he said. “Between him and Bubba, those are the two best in the country if you ask me.”
Before the race, Five Flags honored some of the legendary past champions and notable drivers of this iconic race during a breakfast.
Red Farmer, Eddie Mercer, Gary St. Amant, Jeff Purvis, Dave Mader III, Rick Crawford and Mickey Gibbs delivered the start command to fire the engines.
Thirty-seven cars took the opening green flag on a sun-kissed day at Pensacola’s high banks. By the time Busch and his Kyle Busch Motorsports crew began their celebrations in Victory Lane, the sun setting in the west splashed hues of pinks and oranges, creating a postcard backdrop for the Derby’s golden celebration.
“It’s not cold,” Busch joked, as he kissed the plastic snowball atop the Tom Dawson trophy.
“This is awesome. What a day.”
What a day indeed for the No. 51 machine at the 50th.
5 Flags Speedway – Pensacola, FL
Snowball Derby – Dec. 3, 2017
1. 51 Kyle Busch
2. 9C Jeff Choquette
3. 26 Bubba Pollard
4. 12 Harrison Burton
5. 13 Cassius Clark
6. 18 Casey Roderick
7. 26S Chandler Smith
8. 81 Chase Purdy
9. 99 Raphael Lessard
10. 20 Brandon McReynolds
11. 32D Tyler Dippel
12. 18G Noah Gragson
13. 75 Jeremy Doss
14. 53J Boris Jurkovic
15. 53B Cole Butcher
16. 00 Anthony Cataldi
17. 91 Ty Majeski
18. 4 Kyle Plott
19. 15 Christian Eckes
20. 36 Dan Fredrickson
21. 19 Kason Plott
22. 5 Jerry Artuso
23. 55 Spencer Davis
24. 07 Corey LaJoie
25. 46 Cole Rouse
26. 11R David Rogers
27. 14 Chris Davidson
28. 01 Jake Crum
29. 112 Augie Grill
30. 14C Connor Okrzesik
31. 5M Mason Mingus
32. 48 Preston Peltier
33. 9K Derek Kraus
34. 2W Donnie Wilson
35. 11B Logan Boyett
36. 51N Stephen Nasse
37. 88 Garrett Jones