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NASCAR legends praise Snowball Derby

Although the NASCAR season ended on Sunday night at Homestead Miami Speedway, the sun never truly sleeps on the motorsports industry. It is a fact best-represented by the Snowball Derby Super Late Model race every December at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Fla.

It is without a doubt, the brightest crown jewel in short track racing and draws considerable interest from those within the Sprint Cup Series garage. The list of winners reads like a directory of motorsports history and includes Pete Hamilton, Darrell Waltrip, Ronnie Sanders, Jody Ridley, Rick Crawford, Tammy Jo Kirk and Rich Bickle.

Recent winners include familiar names like Steve Wallace, Clay Rogers, Kyle Busch, Johanna Long, Chase Elliott and Erik Jones. For Wallace, Long, Elliott and Jones, the event has served as a springboard of sorts towards a career in NASCAR. That’s especially true for Jones, who has won four career Truck Series events, and will compete full-time for KBM next season after out-dueling Busch in the 2012 Derby.

Rusty Wallace, a NASCAR Hall of Famer, has attended most every Snowball Derby that his son has competed in and this year will be no different. The 1989 Sprint Cup champion called the event a highlight of his season.

“This race is a huge deal because it’s the end of the year and all the best short track drivers show up to one place and duke it out,” Wallace told Short Track Scene over the weekend at Homestead Miami Speedway. “The race itself features all the good guys and they all target this as the one race they want to win. It’s just a big deal race.

“For me, that’s what this is. It’s a chance to say that you’ve beat the best because they all show up there. That is what has always stuck out to me.”

Bill Elliott, the 1988 Sprint Cup champion, has made two starts in the Derby (1981, 1982) with a best finish of 32nd. That fact alone should tell you just how competitive this race has been over the years. He’s been back several times since with his son, Nationwide Series champion Chase Elliott, and compared the event to the Great American Race.

“Winning the Snowball Derby is a lot like winning the Daytona 500 for the Sprint Cup guys,” Elliott said. “A lot of people have tried and failed. I went back there in the 1980s and ran a couple of times — and was pretty unsuccessful. Over the years, it has grown and become one of the biggest short track events of the year.

“If you look at everyone who has tried — and all the past winners – you’ll see what has been accomplished and realize that it’s been a huge launching pad toward several other things. But even if you don’t make it to NASCAR, just being near the front is a remarkable feat by itself. ”

Both Wallace and Elliott have won the event as a father in 2004 and 2011 respectively.

While competing in the All Pro Series in the 1980s, Joe Nemechek also made two starts in the Snowball Derby with a best finish of seventh. He has spent the past two seasons entering a car for his son, John Hunter, and hopes to join Wallace and Elliott as Derby-winning dads.

“We look forward to that race every year,” Nemechek said following the Truck Series finale at Homestead. “We’ve been very competitive out there and believe we’re going to have a shot to win some races out there. The spotlight is pretty bright and it the competition is tough. That’s what you want when you go out to big races.”

Wallace believes the race is an opportunity to make the jump from Late Models to NASCAR, citing two-time and defending winner Jones as a guy who took that Derby spotlight and made the most of it.

“I was there for his big win two years ago and I remember thinking to myself ‘who the hell is Erik Jones,’” Wallace said. “That was the one where after he won, (Busch) put him in a truck and he started winning races at Phoenix and Iowa and then he went out and won a second Snowball Derby too.

“That’s what caught my eye about this event.”

Snowball Derby festivities kick off on at Five Flags Speedway on Wednesday Dec. 3 with practice taking place on Thursday Dec. 4. Qualifying will take place on Friday night Dec. 5  and lock in the top-30 starters. The rest of the 27 starters will be decided by a last chance race set for Saturday, Dec. 6.

Over 60 Super Late Model teams will spend the week trying to make the field with the winner of the event set to earn over $20,000 in cash and contingencies. The 47th Snowball Derby itself is slated to begin at 2 p.m. CT. on Sunday Dec. 7.

Matt Weaver is the owner and founder of Short Track Scene. Weaver grew up in the sport, having raced himself before becoming a reporter in college at the University of South Alabama. He is also the associate motorsports editor of Autoweek Magazine and its website, which allows him to cover the highest levels of the sport.

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