PENSACOLA, Fla. — Story by Race Chaser Online Managing Editor Jacob Seelman — Bill Gamblin photo —
After being disqualified during Friday’s NASH 102.7 Pole Night and having to come all the way from the back of the Last Chance Showdown field on Saturday just to make the 48th annual Snowball Derby, Christopher Bell left no doubt which car deserved to be sitting in Five Flags Speedway’s victory lane come sundown on Sunday.
It just didn’t turn out that way once lead technical inspector Ricky Brooks had his say.
Bell fought tooth-and-nail to come up through the field over the first two-thirds of the event, taking the point for the first time on lap 201 after starting 31st as the winner of the LCS and leading 93 of the final 100 laps to cross the line first, but was disqualified for the second time on the weekend after failing to make the approved weight ratio in post race inspection and forfeited what would have been his first Tom Dawson Trophy in his first Derby start.
Bell’s car weighed in at 58.3% weight on the left side after passing over the scales three separate times, with the maximum allowed ratio being 58% left side weight.
“I have no idea what happened,” a frustrated Bell lamented. “I really don’t. My guys at Kyle Busch Motorsports built an unbelievable race car for me this weekend. It was a dream machine to drive today and it was bad fast. I crossed the finish line first, but [tech] just hasn’t worked out for us at all here.”
Bell’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart, said after the race their camp believed that rubber buildup from the post-race victory lap contributed to the weight issue. Brooks did not sympathize with the explanation.
“If they were close [on the weight balance], then they shouldn’t have taken a backwards victory lap and put rubber on the tires,” said Brooks, who stressed that the disqualification was a case of a zero-tolerance policy for infractions. “Every car had rubber on their tires and the other [top] two cars were well within the [tolerance] limits.”
The technical DQ ultimately gave 2014 NASCAR XFINITY Series champion Chase Elliott his second-career Snowball Derby victory after he crossed the line second, leading just three laps all day but being where he needed to be when it finally came time to hand out the winner’s laurels.
“I don’t know how much more we needed [to be able to get to Bell outright],” the Dawsonville, Ga. native, who just turned 20 years old last week, admitted amidst the post-race chaos. “We gave it our best effort though all afternoon. I was proud of everyone for their hard work on the car and how they made our pit stops better all afternoon long. That last one was pretty good; it gave us a chance and I couldn’t get the job done on track, but I guess it worked out for us this way instead.”
Elliott won his first-career Derby in 2011 and seemingly won his second in 2013 before being thrown out in Ricky Brooks’ “Room of Doom” for an illegal tungsten weight on his No. 9 Chevrolet.
The irony of that day? A Kyle Busch Motorsports car was declared the winner, after Erik Jones finished second but inherited the win upon Elliott’s DQ. This time around, it was a near-perfect role reversal.
“You never want to win one this way, but I’ve was on the other end of it (tech) two years ago and lost one like that, so it’s just one of those things. We’ll take it no matter what — you always appreciate a win and to have a second Tom Dawson trophy is pretty special.”
Polesitter and track record holder (16.120) Ty Majeski led the field to green and dominated the early stages of the event, leading 63 of the first 66 circuits and surviving a lap three scuffle with Elliott before asserting command over a long green flag stint.
The field nearly made it through the required period of laps (75) that would necessitate a competition caution, but the yellow flew for the first time on lap 65 for a three-car crash in turns three and four that saw young gun Bret Holmes, two-time Derby champion Augie Grill and Kyle Grissom wadded up and taken out of the action.
A lengthy cleanup period and cycle of pit stops saw PASS South stalwart Preston Peltier stay out and assume the point on the 67th round, leading the field back to the green flag finally on lap 77. The veteran driver would pull away from the field by a full second over the course of the run’s first 10 laps, but several big names began to charge their way forward approaching the one-third mark.
Christopher Bell made his way from 31st on the grid to second, bringing defending race winner John Hunter Nemechek with him into third on lap 82, but the story of the second long green-flag run was California teenager Zane Smith.
Utilizing two tires that he took on during the first round of pit stops, Smith charged around Bell on lap 88 and flew by Peltier two laps later to take the lead in his Derby debut. By the time the second caution flag of the afternoon came out at lap 121 for a spinning Garrett Jones, Smith had amassed nearly a two second advantage out front of the field.
While Bell led the majority of the leaders down pit road for service, Smith stayed out to hold the lead for the next restart, but it was exactly that move that would cost him the lead.
On the green flag at lap 129, Smith’s worn tires caused him to lose traction in turn three, nearly taking out second-running Derek Thorn as the two made contact. Thorn was able to escape with the point as Smith managed to hang on to a top-five running position, shuffling the deck as the big names continued to be contenders for the win.
Thorn held the lead all the way through the halfway mark of the race, at which point Majeski, Smith, Nemechek and Elliott made up the balance of the top five. That order would be unchanged until the third yellow of the day came out on lap 171; Kyle Plott’s car spinning up to the outside wall in turn one the reason for the slowdown.
All the leaders save for two — perennial Derby contender Bubba Pollard and Peltier — would head down pit road, leaving a dicey situation on tap for the ensuing restart. A quick caution on that lap 183 go would save Pollard briefly but his worn rubber would give way when full racing resumed at lap 190, handing the point to defending race winner Nemechek.
The lead for car No. 8 was short-lived, however.
Bell’s charge from his time trial disqualification and Last Chance Showdown victory finally began as the race entered its closing third. The Oklahoma young gun blew past Nemechek and proceeded to pick apart the field, blowing out to a near-four second lead during the longest green flag run of the day — one that went the full 75 laps and forced the mandatory competition caution with just 35 laps to go.
The Sooner State native easily won the race off pit road and lined up with Nemechek to his outside for a 26-lap dash for all the marbles; Nemechek beating him to the stripe to pace the restart lap. Bell, however, would reassert himself out front by the time the field exited turn two and was once again the leader when Donnie Wilson, Derek Kraus and Noah Gragson crashed on the frontstretch to slow the pace once again.
Cleanup for the three-car incident would force a red flag period with 25 laps to go — Bell, Nemechek, Zane Smith, Casey Smith and Elliott sitting in the first five positions.
On the restart once cleanup was complete, Nemechek pounced as Bell made a bad decision to choose the outside lane for the restart. The second-generation driver cut across Bell’s nose and muscled his way to the point despite picking up a right front tire rub in the process, hoping to ride it out and sweep the weekend after winning the Snowflake 100 on Saturday night.
However for Nemechek, it wasn’t meant to be. A fire began to develop underneath the right front corner of his machine just before Bell re-passed him for the lead and apparent win, causing the Mooresville, N.C. driver to drop back and ultimately duck to pit road with five laps left — quickly bailing out of his burning car before safety workers and crew members extinguished the flames.
“I got that really good jump on the final restart and took the lead; I’ve got to look on the positive side, here,” Nemechek explained after climbing from his car. “I started getting brake fade, had no brakes whatsoever, but we were still leading so I kept riding. Then the motor started blowing up, and that killed our shot there. I don’t really know what all happened during the red flag that led to that fire, but I thought we were still going to be in contention to win the race and we were for a while there.”
“Sadly, it’s a disappointing day, but we came from the back to have a shot to win and that’s all our guys could have hoped for. Hopefully next year, we can come back with some vengeance and go for another one.”
The incident did not slow the pace, and Bell cruised to the line first before his undoing at the tech shed.
Once the results were adjusted, the final score sheets showed 16-year-old California young gun Zane Smith as the runner-up in his first Derby start, making the talented teenager the Snowball Derby Rookie of the Race and providing a huge bright spot to close the year on.
“This was a fun race,” Smith said with a huge smile. “We started back in 19th and early in the race we just picked our way forward to be in contention. The car was perfect, in my opinion — it had really good drive off of turn two and that’s where we could make a lot of our passes. Late in the race we just had to play pit strategy. We started in the back part of the top five with 25 to go and then sat second forever, but with five to go I saw smoke (from John Hunter Nemechek’s burning car) and I checked up, and that’s when Chase got around me.”
“All in all, it’s a great day, but I guess as it turned out that check-up cost us the Snowball Derby. That’s a little bitter thinking about it like that, but I guess I learned that next eyar if I see smoke in three and four I’m absolutely not going to check up (laughs). I don’t know if that’ll be a good thing or a bad thing, but we’ll see. We’ll be back next year, for sure.”
Polesitter Majeski rallied to complete the official podium in third, followed by Dalton Sargeant and Bubba Pollard.
Casey Smith, Peltier, reigning NASCAR K&N Pro Series East champion William Byron, Thorn and Daniel Hemric made up the balance of the top 10.
Elliott will carry the momentum from his second Snowball Derby victory into a loaded 2016 season, where he will take over the No. 24 Chevrolet in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for the recently-retired Jeff Gordon.
While he couldn’t say earlier in the weekend if this year’s running was his final Derby for the foreseeable future, he did admit that he wants to be back for as long as he is able and allowed to compete at the crown jewel event.
“It’s always special to come and run here,” Elliott said before Sunday’s race kicked off. “With the way the [Sprint Cup] banquet usually falls on Friday’s qualifying night, I don’t know if we’d be able to come and run next year, but I’d like to keep coming back as long as the opportunity is there and presents itself.
“If we can come down here and give an effort that [myself and the team] feel is appropriate then I’d love to come back and hopefully we’ll have that chance moving forward.”
But for now, Elliott is a two-time champion of the greatest Super Late Model race in the country, and the chance to kiss the Tom Dawson Trophy will be one that he will no doubt savor long into the night.
For more information on the Snowball Derby and Five Flags Speedway, visit www.5flagsspeedway.com.
RESULTS: 48th annual Snowball Derby; Five Flags Speedway; Pensacola, Fla.; Dec. 6, 2015
- Chase Elliott
- Zane Smith
- Ty Majeski
- Dalton Sargeant
- Bubba Pollard
- Casey Smith
- Preston Peltier
- William Byron
- Derek Thorn
- Daniel Hemric
- Kaz Grala
- Quin Houff
- Logan Boyett
- Corey LaJoie
- Clay Jones
- Cassius Clark
- Jerry Artuso
- Caleb Adrian
- Scotty Ellis
- Johanna Long
- John Hunter Nemechek
- Christian Eckes
- Donnie Wilson
- Derek Kraus
- Noah Gragson
- Harrison Burton
- Stephen Nasse
- Casey Roderick
- Kyle Plott
- D.J. VanderLey
- Chad Finley
- Garrett Jones
- Kyle Grissom
- Augie Grill
- Bret Holmes
- Spencer Davis
DQ: Christopher Bell (left side weight)
About the Writer
Jacob Seelman is the Managing Editor of Race Chaser Online and creator of the Motorsports Madness radio show, airing at 7 p.m. Eastern every Monday on the Performance Motorsports Network. Seelman grew up in the sport, watching his grandparents co-own the RaDiUs Motorsports NASCAR Cup Series team in the 1990s.
The 21-year-old is currently studying Broadcast Journalism at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., and is also serving as the full-time tour announcer for both the United Sprint Car Series and the Must See Racing Sprint Car Series.
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