Two plus two equals four but so does three plus one.
A lot gets made of the Derek Thorn Line around Five Flags Speedway and rightfully so. His approach into Turn 1, right against the inside pit road wall, has carried him to four poles in five years and the Tom Dawson Trophy in 2022.
Thorn has led 846 of the past 918 laps in the Snowball Derby.
There are, again, more ways to get to four but a lot of people have tried to emulate Thorn’s way of getting there the past five years and they just can’t do it with the same consistency but there are technical reasons for that too.
For example, Bubba Pollard is the most successful driver in the modern history of Five Flags Speedway but he has yet to win its biggest race, so he has certainly tried to emulate Thorn to see if there was something to learn.
“His type of race car, we know he gets free in so he has to drive that straighter entry because his car is so free on entry where mine has more lateral grip up there,” Pollard said.
Up there refers to this wide arc that Pollard takes to the first turn instead.
“But there is no right and wrong answer to any of it or how you drive,” Pollard added. “I mean both lines are fast and get it done. It’s just how everyone brakes different and how you have your car set up. I couldn’t drive his race car and he couldn’t drive my race car. It’s different techniques, different setups and different ways around this place. There is nothing wrong with it.”
Thorn says he and Pollard have talked about their respective approaches and that he ultimately doesn’t think there is anything special about what he does.
“I don’t think it’s that big of a deal, but like talking to Pollard and maybe some other guys, it’s all chassis dependent, right,” Thorn said. “I think there are tendencies.
“FURY Race Cars are always free in so I have a line I have to run to make sure I complement that. Bubba has a wide entry into 1. He’ll never be able to run my line or want to because his car doesn’t want that.”
Thorn drove a Phoenix Racing Hamke chassis here in the summer and tried to run his FURY line and there was nothing there anymore.
“So, I went in and I was close to it but it just wasn’t there,” Thorn said. “So in our car, the way it’s laid out, if you run it right, it will promote certain things at certain times, especially on a long run, it becomes very important and it’s where I want to be.”
Thorn says his frontstretch to Turns 1 and 2 is the most important section of the track and determines his entire lap.
“I think the strength of our package, what we have from start-finish to the middle of 1 and 2 is really strong,” Thorn said. “I think 3 and 4 is a wash for us if you put us against the other guys. We’re the same, if not a little worse at times, but I feel like with how our stuff handles the bumps, the wall in 1 and 2, and the bumps above it, all complements our package.”
Then there is a Noah Gragson, who says his Port City is especially strong in 3 and 4. He says that matters to him more than anything else.
“I’ve tried his line,” Gragson said. “I started getting lower to where he was in the second half of the race last year. When we started testing here, I got our car to get down there, but there is a bump starting to really come in at the center to five-eighths mark.
“It’s really starting to become a bigger swell to where I had never really noticed it in the past. We got our car to where it glides over that really well, almost like the left sides are on the seam and then it train-tracks over the corner and kind of rail-roads the bumps.
“But there are times where I can hit his line. I hit it six times when we tested absolutely perfect, but I can only do it like 90 to 95 percent of the time.”
Thorn’s FURY car just gives him a better batting average below that bump. Gragson’s Port City can better ‘railroad’ the bump and Pollard’s Senneker rewards just going above it.
Again, three different ways to get to ‘4.’
Hunter Robbins drives a Hamke and it’s all about the chassis to him too.
“A lot of times, I’ve cracked my left front fender down there during the race as the grip and line changes,” Robbins said. “And that’s the thing — some people’s car works better down there and others works better with that wide arc.
“His car seems to be a lot looser and can really wrap the bottom to where others need to widen the corner to get their drive off.”
Jake Finch, who considers Thorn a mentor but is also in a Hamke, says regardless of the car differences, he finds the execution lap-after-lap from the defending winner an impressive feat.
“There is one common goal and multiple ways to get there,” Finch said. “I think being on the yellow line in 1 and 2 and having good drive off is everyone’s objective. Derek and Bubba have two different driving styles but being close to both, having been teammates to both at certain points, I get to pick both of their brains.
“What Derek is able to do lap-after-lap is so impressive. What really stands out to me, regardless of what car you drive is, when you watch practice, you see everyone try it now. They want to know if they can do it and that’s kind of his legacy right now.”
The fifth way to get to four is what Ty Majeski and crew chief Toby Nuttleman are doing with their unique TobyCar chassis.
“Attitude is a challenge we have with our car because our geometry is so different,” Majeski said. “At this track, we’re always turning and the car never gets a chance to settle. We’re always on the right rear. A lot of teams don’t battle that in the same way. We have to battle to keep our left front down and not have the transition on entry.”
Ultimately, he echoed the sentiment of his peers that there are just so many ways to make speed at Five Flags Speedway.
“You can run this track a lot of different ways,” Majeski said. “Thorn has found his way right up against the wall. Bubba Pollard and Chase Elliott are in the second groove and are just as good as Derek. Obviously, no one has had the speed Derek has had the past four years but everything is a cycle, right?
“We’ve had our time, ‘15 to ’19 where we were really good. 2020 we weren’t as good but won the race and ever since, we’ve been an average to 10th place car. It’s just the cyclical nature of racing and everyone is trying to evolve their package and driving style and the track is always changing too.”
Continuing Snowball Derby coverage on Short Track Scene is presented by Phoenix Water Solutions.