The atmosphere on pit road for qualifying night at the Snowball Derby is unlike anything else in short track racing.
With 47 drivers vying for 30 guaranteed spots in the 51st annual marquee event at Five Flags Speedway, the stress level on pit road was high — and it only ramped up when drivers started being bumped off the final transfer spot in the waning moments.
In the end, some drivers were a little bit more stressed out than others. Spencer Davis, who has driven just about everything in short track racing — spanning from Southern Modifieds to Super Late Models and Pro Late Models — was the final car to earn a spot in the starting field on time when the checkered flag flew.
Davis’ time of 16.720 seconds was just five-thousands of a second faster than Paul Shafer Jr.’s 16.725 lap around the Pensacola oval, but that small margin was just enough.
“The last couple of years we have been qualifying in really solid when we raced Super Late Models full-time, and we know we can qualify in,” Davis said as he took a deep breath after confirming he was in. “We don’t race the Super stuff all the time anymore, and with me being in North Carolina instead of Georgia, it’s hard to work on it. We knew we weren’t very good at the end of practice and we knew we had some work to do.”
Davis made starts in both NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series and Camping World Truck Series this season as he looks to take his talent to the national level.
And in his return to what is arguably the toughest Super Late Model race to qualify for in the country, even though he made it in, the final few moments of qualifying were some of the most stressful in his racing career.
“Being on the bubble for the last four cars was really stressful,” Davis said. “There are a lot of good guys right there that can qualify into the Derby. When Stephen (Nasse, the final car) went out, I said it was too good to be true, I figured we’d be 31st. It’s a blessing in disguise, but after all we have been through this week, for us to be in, that’s the first battle.”
Just in front of Davis, Corey Heim wasn’t breathing any easier. His time of 16.698 seconds was good enough to put him 29th on the board, just enough to sneak in. But much like Davis, he wasn’t so sure he was going to have a spot.
“I was really nervous for the longest time, being on the cut line, there were a ton of people left to go,” Heim said. “I’m really glad we made it, but I’m somewhat surprised just because I didn’t quite think that lap was going to make it in. I overdrove it a little bit just trying to get everything out of it, but for the most part, that’s all I could get.”
NASCAR’s K&N West regular Derek Kraus, who won four times on the circuit, qualified 28th. Kraus ran a lap of 16.675 seconds, and even though he was only a tenth from a lap that would have been good enough for 21st, the pressure was on the final moments of qualifying. Unfortunately for him, his work on the track was done. He had no choice but to sit back and wait it out — which only added to the nerves.
“After practice today, I was just looking to make it in,” the Stratford, Wisconsin, driver said. “It was definitely stressful. I was asking people who was next, how many cars to go…. I’m just happy to be in the Snowball Derby.”
Finally, just one spot ahead of Kraus in 27th was Derek Griffith, who made the haul from New Hampshire to Pensacola looking to make his first Derby start. Griffith is a regular in New England, but this year he took his talent to New Smyrna Speedway’s World Series of Asphalt Racing in February, won the PASS National Championship while racing up and down the East Coast, and qualified into his first Snowball with a time of 16.647 seconds.
“I knew we were pretty good, but I messed up on one of our laps and it messes you up for both of them,” Griffith said. “I was pretty bummed out because we had a faster car than that. I got down on the flat on the apron and I got loose off. I think we could have ran a low 16.50, but I’m just happy to make it and there is way less pressure now.”
And with 47 of the best Super Late Model drivers in the country flocking to Five Flags Speedway, Griffith knows he is in elite company.
“Everyone here is somebody,” the Hudson, New Hampshire, native said. “And a lot of good cars didn’t make it. This means something to me…. first try, new car, first time here (at Five Flags)… to make it into the Derby, it’s pretty cool.”
Harrison Burton won the pole for Sunday’s Snowball Derby, with Cole Butcher qualifying second and 2017 pole winner Preston Peltier third.