Fresher tires won the day in Sunday’s 51st running of the Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway.
Noah Gragson took the lead from pole sitter Harrison Burton on a late restart, and went on to hold off Ty Majeski to score the victory at the venerable Pensacola, Florida speed plant.
Gragson, driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports, was in the mix throughout most of the 300-lap asphalt Super Late Model feature. When he took the lead from Burton with just six laps to go, it set up a trip to victory lane and the coveted Tom Dawson Trophy for the Las Vegas, Nevada driver.
“What an awesome opportunity to just be in the Snowball Derby,” said the 20-year-old. “To be able to come down to Pensacola, Florida in December to Five Flags Speedway and see all these great race car drivers in the Late Model series and all these people who come out to support short track racing. That means a lot to me.”
Gragson said he had already given the trophy the traditional kiss.
“I’ve kissed it a couple of times. I’m probably going to make out with it tonight.”
Gragson’s win gives KBM team its fourth Snowball Derby victory, with Kyle Busch winning in 2009 and 2017 and Erik Jones winning in 2013. It comes as Gragson prepares to move from the KBM NASCAR Truck Series No. 51 to the No. 1 for JR Motorsports on the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2019.
“You don’t get opportunities like that, and for me, I really wanted to appreciate the moment,” Gragson said. “As a race car driver, in any form of racing, you don’t get these opportunities and get to be in these moments very often, so I’m just trying to appreciate it.”
Gragson said he didn’t feel he had the win until he crossed the start/finish line.
“I heard my spotter, Tony Hirschman, say ‘You just won the 2018 Snowball Derby.’ And I keyed that microphone up and I screamed and screamed for the entire cool down lap,” Gragson said. “I don’t think you’re supposed to do burnouts at the Snowball Derby, but…..you don’t get very many opportunities to win the Snowball Derby, so I had to burn that thing down.”
Burton had the lead late in the going, and the second generation driver looked to have the race in his hip pocket until the caution came out when Kyle Bryant spun. Burton had used all of his allotted sets of tires, and stayed on the track while the rest of the leaders hit pit road for fresh rubber.
When Gragson came off pit road first, it looked like Burton was a sitting duck.
Gragson took the lead on the restart, but saw it nullified when Senoia, Georgia’s Bubba Pollard spun after making contact with Majeski. Since a lap was not completed, Burton was put back in the lead. On the next restart attempt, Burton chose the outside line.
But Burton stumbled on the restart, allowing Gragson to take the lead with Majeski powering to second while Burton plummeted backwards through the field.
Over the closing laps, Majeski closed on the leader, but came up short at the checkered flag.
“I can look back at the race and think of things we could have done differently. I can’t come up with anything,” Majeski said. “We executed perfectly on all aspects, whether it be adjustments or pit stops. Obviously with having the wide five wheels, it slows it down a little, but we knew that coming in.
“But the crew did a great job, losing only two or three spots each stop to the KBM cars, Bubba (Pollard) and maybe (Jeff) Choquette. We did a great job holding that track position. We knew if we could maintain three or four lost spots on pit road, we’d have a shot to win. Unfortunately, we just came up three or four laps short.
Burton had led from the pole, but got mired back in traffic after an early pit stop. His Wimmer Motorsports team made the call to use fresher tires with a lap 213 pit stop to bust through traffic, allowing him to retake the lead with 25 laps to go.
But the strategy was derailed when the other leaders pitted for fresh rubber on the next to last caution. While Gragson took the lead on the final restart, Burton’s worn tires left him sliding all the way back to 10th position, where he finished the night.
“It’s tough, man,” said Burton, who will drive full time on the NASCAR Truck Series for Kyle Busch Motorsports next year. “We had a really good car. We didn’t have a good enough car to pass those guys. It’s so hard to pass here, and track position is really big. We figured the only to win was to do something different. It almost worked out.”
Jeff Choquette, who led much of the middle portion of the race, finished in third, followed by Connor Okrzesik in fourth.
Pre-race favorite Casey Roderick, of Lawrenceville, Georgia, had to battle back from an early race setback. Roderick found the Ronnie Sanders owned No. 18 Ford to be down on power at the start of the race. Roderick hit pit road during a caution on lap 46, where the crew found a faulty spark plug to be the issue. After making repairs, Roderick returned to the track one lap down.
Roderick would work to get back on the lead lap, and would finally get the break he needed when he took the wave around after a lap 168 caution. From there, he would battle his way to a fifth place finish.
Jasper, Georgia’s Chandler Smith followed in sixth, with Donnie Wilson, Tyler Ankrum, Cole Butcher and Burton rounding out the top ten.
Marietta, Georgia’s Kyle Plott finished in 18th, while Dawsonville, Georgia’s Spencer Davis came home in 19th.
While Gragson celebrated in victory lane, it was a rough day for some of the other pre-race favorites. After his late race spin, Bubba Pollard parked his car for the night, having a few words with Majeski’s crew afterwards. He would be credited with a 26th place finish, making him 0-13 in his quest to win the Snowball Derby.
Stephen Nasse, who made it into the field on a provisional, had moved steadily through the field all day until making hard contact with the turn three wall on lap on lap 213. After exiting his car, he had words with his pit crew, who had been hired for the race weekend, about an apparent wheel left loose. He was credited with a 27th place result.
Noah Gragson’s Kyle Busch Motorsports teammate, Raphael Lessard, was running third on the final restart, was called to pit road by race officials due to a fluid leak. He would finish in 25th position.
Two former race winners saw their race hopes ended before the race even started, as Augie Grill and Steven Wallace failed to make the field. Both had to race their way into the feature thorough Last Chance Race, which was pushed to Sunday after heavy rains washed out Saturday’s events.
Wallace, the 2004 Derby winner, suffered mechanical failure before the start, while two-time winner Grill parked, down on power, about 14 laps into the race.
5 Flags Speedway – Pensacola, FL
Snowball Derby – December 2, 2018
1. Noah Gragson
2. Ty Majeski
3. Jeff Choquette
4. Connor Okrzesik
5. Casey Roderick
6. Chandler Smith
7. Donnie Wilson
8. Tyler Ankrum
9. Cole Butcher
10. Harrison Burton
11. Jeremy Doss
12. Derek Thorn
13. John DeAngelis, Jr.
14. Chase Purdy
15. Jesse Dutilly
16. Derek Kraus
17. Jack Dossey III
18. Kyle Plott
19. Spencer Davis
20. Logan Boyett
21. Paul Shafer, Jr.
22. Derek Griffith
23. Dennis Prunty
24. Kyle Bryant
25. Raphael Lessard
26. Bubba Pollard
27. Stephen Nasse
28. Michael Atwell
29. Corey Heim
30. Kaden Honeycutt
31. Chris Davidson
32. Preston Peltier
33. Perry Patino
34. Stewart Friesen
35. Carson Hocevar
36. Austin Nason