Loper Ends One Derby Streak, Captures Bombers Derby Crown; Fowler Starts Another in Picking up Second Sportsman Championship
By Chuck Corder
By Chuck Corder
Robert Loper dressed for the occasion.
Bearing an athletic-wear undershirt with the Superman logo emblazoned across it, the Irvington, Ala., driver overcame 23 villains Thursday night at Five Flags Speedway and earned the first title of the 48th annual Snowball Derby.
Loper, 30, took the lead on Lap 6 of 30 before holding off two-time defending champion B.J. Leytham, in the closing laps to win the Bombers Derby against a 24-car field.
“It means the world to me,” Loper said. It’s been a hard-fought year. We flipped this car a few weeks ago in Mobile, and I was scared to death it wasn’t going to handle right.”
Leytham finished second on the track, but was disqualified in technical inspection. That moved Matt Jackson to a runner-up finish and Rusty Powell Jr. rounded out the podium.
While Leytham and Butler U-Pull-it Bombers track champion Geno Denmark were the prerace favorites coming into Thursday, Loper was, by no means, a long shot. He had won three features at the famed half-mile asphalt oval during 2015.
When Leytham experienced clutch and transmission troubles early in the race, Loper mashed the throttle in what was his best opportunity to get out in clean air.
Under one of the five cautions the 30 lapper saw, Leytham sputtered down the front stretch. Instead of instead of coming to the pits, he opted to stay out and came to a stop just across the start-finish line to discuss the issue with track officials.
That choice cost Leytham. Instead of earning back the second spot where he was running at the time the yellow flew, track officials sent him to near tail end of the field.
“I’ve never seen anybody not get their spot back after stopping under caution,” Leytham said afterward. “Apparently, the track director wanted to see a good race.
“I shoulda won that. I wanted three in a row.”
Instead, it was Loper’s night to break the streak and celebrate with a roar as he hopped out and on top of his No. 15.
“We started the year as nobodies, and look where we’re at now,” he said.
Denmark’s night began just as he hoped for. He was second in qualifying to Jackson’s top time of 21.773 seconds and was running in the top-five for most of the night.
But disaster struck on Lap 18 when Denmark was a part of a two-car collision with a lapped car. The entire front end of his recently rebuilt No. 88 was tore up to hell. The right front wheel was noticeably bent, and Denmark night was offifically done.
“I dunno what happened,” a perplexed Denmark said. “Somebody spun us out over there. Some people don’t know what to do when cars spin out in front of them. (An unnamed driver) drove right beside me and put us both into the wall. We spent countless hours on the car, and now it’s a buncha money wasted. It’s stupidity, that’s all it is.”
Leytham battled back through the field after being sent to the rear. After restarting 18th, he shot off like a man on a mission and chewed up 15 spots in 13 laps to be sitting fifth by Lap 18.
It was quite the competitive runs for cars running in the top-five all night, as the top five cars battled nose-to-tail for most of the final 10 laps.
When Loper saw Leytham creeping close in his rearview, though, he knew this would be his biggest test of the night.
Loper passed with flying colrs.
“I knew I had to stay low, and protect the inside line” from Leytham, he said. “Reality hasn’t set in.”
Brannon Fowler stole a page from the playbook of his fiercest rival.
Last year’s defending Sportsman Snowball Derby champion never let race leader and pole sitter Steve Buttrick out of his sight for the 50-lapper, patiently biding his time until the right opportunity presented itself.
That came on Lap 39 when Buttrick made a rare mistake, a slight bobble, and the door was open for Fowler in Turn No. 3.
Assisted by lapped traffic, Fowler took the lead on the high side, withstood a brief jockeying for the lead with Buttrick and eventually pulled away for good on Lap 42 for his second Sportsman Derby in a row. Teenager sensation Connor Okrzesik was second and Randy Thompson’s battered No. 42 somehow found his way to third.
“Back-to-back is so special,” Fowler, the Molino driver, said. “This one is more meaningful because it was my dad’s (Glenn) 64th birthday. Plus, my son got to stay up all night this time and see me win. He fell asleep last year.”
Little 6-year-old Collin was even directing Fowler’s crew into their spots when it came time for Victory Lane photographs.
His father was just happy to beat Buttrick, a four-time Sportsman Snowball champion, when it counted most. After running second to Buttrick for most of the regular season, Fowler was tickled to swipe the checkered flag during short-track racing’s preeminent week.
“The car stayed with me,” Fowler said. “The car was on a rail all night. We put pressure on Steve on the outside and stayed strong. We’re old rivals, but there’s a mutual respect between us.
“We were able to battle at the end and make a move on the inside of him, and came out victorious.”
Buttrick didn’t go down without a fight, though. After crushing Fowler’s previous track record in qualifying with a time of 20.291 seconds, Buttrick turned his steely focus and engaging smile to an unprecedented fifth Derby title.
Once Fowler assumed the lead with his nifty outside pass just before Lap 40. Buttrick made it four-wide as the leaders navigated their ways through lapped track between turn Nos. 1 and 2. The pair was neck-and-neck around the track for the next few laps.
Buttrick pulled back in front by a nose momentarily, as the pair swapped paint as they came to the line on Lap 42. It was the buffer and all the separation Fowler needed.
Two laps later, Buttrick’s typical wise tire management befell him. His left front tire immediately went flat. He maintained speed and rode the rim for several laps before a caution came out.