Bubba Pollard is still driving the No. 26, sort of, but you need to look extra hard to find it.
For the first time in nine years, the de facto face of pavement Super Late Model racing will drive for someone other than Pollard Motorsports.
When he unloaded at the Snowball Derby on Wednesday, out came the No. 71 TK Racing entry typically driven by Johnny VanDoorn and wrenched by his brother, Butch. In the bottom right corner of the ‘71’ decal is the smaller ‘26’ font.
The car is sponsored by TM Ranch and Harrison’s Workwear.
This is clearly a car that will be driven by Bubba Pollard in the Snowball Derby, but it also signifies that this is a dream team put together by its driver in the pursuit of the Tom Dawson Trophy that has eluded him for over 15 years.
It’s being pushed to inspection by the likes of Butch VanDoorn, John Collard and Aaron Yetter – a collection of crew members he has assembled from every team he has driven for over the past two decades.
“You know, we’ve got some history with this program,” Pollard told Short Track Scene on Wednesday. “The guys from David Rogers team, they were with him for 30 years. That’s loyalty. You don’t fund that in racing much anymore.
“And then the VanDoorn brothers, they’re working to make their business grow and doing everything they need to move to the next level. I’m just thankful to be a part of that. I’m thankful though to have people great people surrounding me.
“I’m very fortunate and very lucky. To win races, there is a lot to the puzzle and being around the right people is the key.”
And that essentially sums up how Pollard came to drive the No. 71 with the expectation that he will likely do so for the foreseeable future as well.
The VanDoorns split from Port City Racecars several years ago with the intent of expanding their chassis business across the country. This was around the same time that Pollard linked-up with Senneker Race Cars and was hugely instrumental in growing that brand nationally.
Over the past summer, VanDoorn Racing Development and TK Racing won three of the biggest midwestern races of the season with Carson Hocevar in the Redbud 400, Money in the Bank 150 and Winchester 400.
Simultaneously, Pollard found himself mired in a slump and took notice of what the VanDoorns were building and a deal was put together in November.
“You know, we kind of struggled all year, even at the beginning of the year when we were winning races,” Pollard said. “I feel like the summertime came and we were winning at race tracks we felt comfortable at we thought the program was where it needed to be.
“Then you go to places like Winchester, Nashville, and you get a reality check real fast. So, I ain’t going to say we weren’t thinking about doing something different, but this deal came together fast after Winchester and Nashville.”
Those were two marquee races Pollard failed to make it to the finish — pulling behind the wall early after failing to find the speed and balance needed to even crack the top-10 before halfway. He suffered similar results in the Dixieland 250 and Oxford 250.
“I felt like it was just time,” Pollard said. “You know, we tried to stick it out and be loyal and work on our equipment to be the best we could, and it just didn’t work out, but we’re excited for the future and see where it takes us.”
After closing out the deal with VanDoorn Racing Development, Pollard made the last-minute decision to enter the Florida Governor’s Cup at New Smyrna. He wanted one last chance to end his tenure with Senneker Race Cars in Victory Lane.
He accomplished that goal, outdueling Daniel Dye, in the 200 lapper — producing a very emotional victory lane. The mother of longtime crew member, Mark Buckner, passed away last month around the time of the Gov Cup.
The No. 71 race team will compete this weekend with a decal honoring the memory of Cindy Bucknor.
Between winning a race at New Smyrna with the crew of David Rogers, the passing of a family friend and winning one more time with the Sennekers, everyone on the Pollard team was crying in victory lane. Pollard, sister and spotter Andrea Pollard, Terry Sennker, and the whole group.
It was a powerful scene and one Pollard thought was important for the industry to see.
“There was a lot of emotion,” Pollard said. “As racers, you try not to let that come out, but it’s good.
“It’s good for people to see that kind of emotion. There was so much happening. She passed away and Mark is part of our team, our family. It’s personal for me because we’ve been friends for such a long time.
“When you see someone (that) you love (get) hurt, you feel heavy, and that’s what it was all about. But she’s in a better place now and I hope Mark can make it down here and enjoy it and get his mind off things.”
A very emotional Bubba Pollard in victory lane.
He's taken the TM Ranch and David Rogers' team back to victory lane at their home track, New Smyrna.
And this win was even more special for reasons we'll find out about soon. pic.twitter.com/yCgHxt0tc6
— Matt Weaver (@MattWeaverAW) November 15, 2020
All told, Pollard believes this should be one of his best chances to win.
The 33-year-old is driving the same car Hocevar took to victory lane in the CRA Triple Crown and he has an all-star group of people around him working towards that same goal. Pollard has 12 starts in the Derby in 14 attempts over 15 years.
His best finish is third in 2017, a race that he led the most laps, with a fifth-place finish in 2008. His average finish is 18.7, drug down by various crashes and misfortune over the years.
It’s becoming very similar to Dale Earnhardt’s 20 years of trying and 20 years of frustration, with Pollard winning everything there is to win at both Five Flags Speedway and Super Late Model racing but failing to come away with the big prize.
That’s ultimately why he’s driving the No. 71 this year.
“I think it’s a definitely a good opportunity,” Pollard said. “We’ve won some big races when we’ve gone to a big race for the first time, and not knowing what to expect.
“But it’s also a challenge because you don’t know what’s going to happen. We knew what to expect driving our cars the past couple of years. I kind of like this aspect — not totally knowing what to expect. But there are also a lot of unknowns.
“This weekend, we know their program is good. But we’re going to find out where we all stand this weekend because this is a good group. I can’t wait to see where we stack up.”