It’s going to be a full day on Sunday for the 56th Snowball Derby.
Following a week of speculation, Saturday was indeed a complete washout leaving both the Last Chance Race and 300 lap main event to take place on Sunday afternoon at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida.
There are, as always, no shortage of storylines before the Super Bowl of Super Late Model Racing.
Last Chance Race
It’s not quite as loaded as the 2020 Last Chance Race but this year’s which also will take place on Sunday is pretty stacked. NASCAR regulars Sammy Smith and Derek Kraus, CARS Tour champion Carson Kvapil, two-time Derby winner Augie Grill and perennial national contender Preston Peltier are all racing for their lives.
The race is 50 laps and will take only the top-four finishers.
Smith starts the race from the pole, and even though they missed it in time trials, he likes his race pace based on their test session weeks ago.
“I feel good about it,” Smith said after missing practice due to the NASCAR Awards in Nashville. “We tested a couple of weeks ago and felt good about it too.”
He says his car will race good and he might even benefit from the extra track time.
“For me, if we’re going to qualify that bad, we might as well run the Last Chance Race and learn something. We just need to stay out of trouble. Stay out front and see if we can learn something in the process.”
Kraus has just struggled to find raw speed all week, a worrisome trend from their car for most of the seasons they’ve come here, and a day race might actually help all the ways their car is ill.
Carson Hocevar and Zach Dunston tore their car apart on Saturday in the right at the speedway getting their car back to their baseline.
“We ran a .70 when we mocked and tried to run a .50,” Hocevar said of a potential pole run. “We tried some things to get better and just made some more problems. I could have got a .70 out of it, which would have made us about 13th, but I missed the corner, bottomed out.
“We just took a swing at it.”
Hocevar said he talked to Preston Peltier, parked next to him, after qualifying. Peltier was like, ‘why did you change it’ and Hocevar laughed and said he didn’t really have a good answer for him.
Hocevar said he and the team went to Panera for breakfast and then Outback for lunch to discuss the car and what changes to make for the day of racing on Sunday. They went back through notes dating back to 2019.
“I was doing my rain dance today because I wanted a day race,” Hocevar said.
Hocevar will start the Last Chance in ninth and hopes for a long green flag run, with the caveat that he will likely need a short run or two to break into the top-four depending on how the race goes approaching Lap 50.
“Day race, we’ll be okay,” Hocevar said. “And really, that’s all I’m rooting for. If we have a good car, and we just run out of time, that’s okay. It’s not being competitive that would bother me. If we’re not good, it’s going to make me schedule a lot more Super Late Model races next year.”
Snowball Derby Last Chance Race Lineup
- Sammy Smith
- Derek Kraus
- Carson Kvapil
- Conner Sutton
- Ryan Moore
- Johnny Aramendia
- Augie Grill
- Timothy Watson
- Carson Hocevar
- Dustin Smith
- John Bolen
- Jake Garcia
- Chase Burda
- Stuart Dutton
- Albert Francis
- Travis Rodewald
- Preston Peltier
It will continue to be a story until it is no longer a story but on his 18th attempt to win the Snowball Derby, Bubba Pollard is in the mix and has been silently confident that he should be in the mix. That doesn’t mean Pollard has to win to validate this week as a solid finish would go a long way towards what he and Senneker Race Cars are trying to build
“I’m really happy,” Pollard said. “Everything we’ve done this week, it drove good, and that’s all you can ask for. We’ve put various sets of tires on it and they’ve all been fast. We haven’t gotten caught up in practice times because the race track will be so different.
“I don’t know how else to explain it. I feel good. We’ve run this baseline here, Wilkesboro, Berlin, the whole year and haven’t changed nothing. Opp. Cordele. It’s a good baseline and I’m excited for Sunday.”
It’s been a mixed-bag week for Noah Gragson and Rette Jones Racing.
On one hand, Gragson went into this week feeling like this was the best car he has ever had at Five Flags Speedway based on their test, and then they struggled to validate in practice this week. They qualified in third but only after a penalty (generator exhaust) denied them their fastest lap in time trials.
It’s still a very good car but they’re trying to figure out which car it is.
“We tested down here really well for two days, but my thoughts on practice was, it felt like every set of tires we bolted on were very inconsistent,” Gragson said. “There was a lot of pace difference, lap time wise, from set-to-set and balance wise.”
Gragson wasn’t alone in that sentiment as most everyone in the garage said there was a huge difference from the tires everyone tested on and the fresh batch that came in time for practice this week.
Before that, on Wednesday, it was a more confident tone.
“I felt like I knew every corner of the car and I could feel every little piece of the car, like I just felt in tune with it,” Gragson said. “I feel that way when we tested and it was a really productive day.
“We unloaded really close and we made some big gains and I feel like we’re 95 percent of the way there. We ended with two 75 lap runs the second day. I was really happy with the feel of it. I was really happy with the fall off of it and just the balance of the car.
“It was a really productive test. Both days we learned a lot and we’re chasing that last five percent, Which is the last and the hardest.”
That’s proven true.
Gragson already has a Snowball Derby win, one that came back in 2018, but he still feels like he’s chasing something in Pensacola.
“This race will never owe you anything,” Gragson said. “I was talking to Mark Bucker (Bubba Pollard crew chief) last night and we were talking about how I won in 18, missed it in 19 to go to a wedding and then we missed the race in 2020.
“And then, when we won, like I knew the history and it mean a lot but it really hit me when Dale Jr texted me and said ‘my dad has been coming here all his career and never won’ and that was perspectie.
“It’s still the biggest win of my career.’
He’s won at Daytona.
“Yeah, but I mean it and I don’t know if it’s how hard it was or how much this place has challenged me but I feel that way and it would mean just as much to be able to do it again.”
Derek Thorn and Mike Keen finally broke through and won the Snowball Derby together last year to conclude the most dominant stretch imaginable. Thorn has led 846 of the past 918 laps in the Snowball Derby.
And now those former Campbell Motorsports cars, and that institutional knowledge, is going everywhere.
Thorn is now driving for Paul Shafer Motorsports’ No. 7 but still driving the same chassis he won with last year and teamed with crew chief Chris Purdy, resuming a partnership that existed in Wisconsin back in 2007 and 2008.
His longtime crew chief, Mike Keen, is working next door to the Shafer team with driver Jacob Gomes in a twin car to the one Thorn is driving. Another Thorn car is now being driven by Conner Jones and they’re all sharing information and working together towards a common goal …
To make one of them Snowball Derby champions.
It’s an interesting dynamic for Thorn who has come down here for a decade focused on himself and his No. 43 team but now team has a whole new meaning.
“It’s one of those things where it’s brought me out of my shell and I have to, I guess, retrain my brain to try to be a better coach right,” Thorn said. “I’m kind of a closed off person. I know what I want but I don’t always communicate well so working with guys like Conner and Jacob Gomes, that bring me out of my shell and makes me realize things I didn’t in the past.
“It’s also been fun because it helps me develop as a person and and kind of pass on what I’ve learned, but help them at the same time.”
Jones, who is typically pretty steely and reserved, comes out of his own shell when he talks about Thorn and what he has provided him.
“He’s worked his butt off, everyone at FURY, Jeff Fultz and I’ve learned a lot from him.”
Gomes has worked with DTR all year and he says that has given him all the tools in the world and it’s up to him to execute as a driver.
“Its all on me, right,” Gomes said. “They are the best in the business so it’s up to me to go out there, do my job, and frankly not embarrass myself. We’re having a good week and hopefully we can keep it going.”
Thorn said from the moment that Campbell Motorsports shut down that he was going to have to operate as a business to stay in racing and his driver and team development platform is off to a successful start.
He is on the pole, Gomes and Jones are in the race, as is Jett Noland.
“The biggest thing with DTR is you got run well, right,” Thorn said. “Like people call you when things are going well but I’ve been very fortunate to have a really cool list of clients and those guys have been not only fun to work with, but it’s fun when you get to lean on guys like Jacob, Robert Jones, the Nolands from a business standpoint too.
“Like, they’re all just really great people and racing is a family, right? It’s business but it’s cool to have a business that has a family atmosphere that makes it fun.”
Listen, it’s the Derby so if you make the field, you can win the race. Travis Braden was proof of that back in 2019 when he crashed in Happy Hour, rebuilt the car overnight, avoided some crashes to finish second but was then awarded the victory in technical inspection when Stephen Nasse failed.
Braden is back for his first Derby start since that night and is in a very competitive Jett Motorsports with Larry Blount No. 21.
Nasse has found his competitive spark again since joining forces with Anthony Campi Racing back in August. They very well could have won the Winchester 400 and did win the Florida Governor’s Cup. They also have a Southern Super Series win here.
Despite some bugs in their car, William Byron believes he has race winning pace in the other Campi car.
Ty Majeski was the dominant car here from 2016 to 2020, the latter of which he won, and has still been a fixture in the top-10 ever since. Majeski has actually brought back the car that won that race here that year and it’s been fast. It’s an older chassis but it only has a handful of races in it.
Ryan Preece is coming from deeper in the field but are you going to bet against a car driven by a tremendous short tracker and Cup Series regular with one of the absolute best crew chiefs in Chris Gabehart calling the shots?
Pollard, for all the reasons discussed, or even Luke Fenhaus driving a very stout Rackley WAR machine each make sense as potential winners. Thorn, Gomes, Jones and Noland for all the reasons discussed pertaining to Derek Thorn Racing.
Erik Jones has a number of his Cup crew members, including crew chief Dale Elenz wrenching his Late Model, and had a very stout race car in Pensacola last December before it was crashed out. He won Battle at Berlin over the summer.
Jeremy Doss won the track championship this summer and always seems to be in the mix here in December.
And then there is the Donnie Wilson Motorsports stable of Cole Butcher, William Sawalich, Gio Ruggiero and Sammy Smith, the latter who needs to come from the last chance, but all three feel like they have great race cars. General manager Bond Suss has said it, car chief Gere Kennon has said it and Donnie Wilson has said it.
They’ll get to the front of they can avoid the carnage.
- Derek Thorn
- Ty Majeski
- Noah Gragson
- Bubba Pollard
- Luke Fenhaus
- Michael Hinde
- Johnny Sauter
- Stephen Nasse
- Connor Okrzesik
- Treyten Lapcevich
- Jackson Boone
- Derek Griffith
- William Byron
- Matthew Craig
- Jacob Gomes
- Jeremy Doss
- Hunter Robbins
- Haeden Plybon
- Caden Kvapil
- Travis Braden
- Erik Jones
- Conner Jones
- Jake Finch
- Michael House
- Jace Hansen
- William Sawalich
- Ryan Preece
- Cole Butcher
- Kole Raz
- Gio Ruggiero
- Jett Noland
- Billy VanMeter
- Jett Noland
The Snowball Derby will air live on Racing America. A single day PPV can be purchased for $50. It now includes both the Snowball Derby itself and the Last Chance Race. There is also a rain delay bundle for $60 that includes Sunday and Monday’s rain delayed action. Monday will see qualifying, last chance racing and the 100-lap feature for the Snowflake 100.
|Pits Open, Team Members Only
|Tire Draw for Locked In Teams
|All Haulers Must Be Out of Infield
|Snowball Derby Drivers Meeting
|Pre-Tech Opens After Drivers Meeting
|Worship Service in Fan Zone Tent
|Last Chance Qualifier Cars Grid At Stop & Go
|All Cars Must Be Through Tech
|Snowball Derby Last Chance Qualifier
|Engine Warmups/Cars to Grid
|2023 Snowball Derby Class Photo
|2:00 PM (Approx.)
|56th Annual Snowball Derby
|8:00 PM-10:00 PM
|Park Snowflake 100 Haulers
|Park Remaining Pro Late Model Haulers
|Move Snowflake Tires to Tech
|Pre-Tech Opens After Drivers Meeting
|Outlaw Hauler Parking
|Snowflake Last Chance Qualifier
|Outlaw Practice/Group Qualifying
|Allen Turner Snowflake 100
Continuing Snowball Derby coverage on Short Track Scene is presented by Phoenix Water Solutions.