A Lasting Image: Elliott Captures Second Snowball Derby in Possible Swan Song
By Chuck Corder
From the coliseums in ancient Rome to bullfighting in Spain to college and NFL gridirons across America, we all want to see excitement.
And it’s why, each December, Pensacola’s Five Flags Speedway morphs into the hub of the racing universe.
Excitement and entertainment is guaranteed.
The 48th annual Snowball Derby didn’t disappoint. There’s a reason it’s billed the most prestigious short track race in America. It once again lived up to hype Sunday afternoon.
A stacked field of 37 Super Late Model drivers, some already boasting NASCAR seat time under their fire suits, delighted the standing-room-only crowd that flooded the famed half-mile asphalt oval on an unseasonably warm, sun-kissed Sunday in December.
Months shy of hopping in Jeff Gordon’s old ride, Chase Elliott padded his legendary career in Pensacola with a second Derby. Elliott’s resume, which includes his first Derby title in 2011, also boasts three Snowflake 100 victories in his Pro Late Model at Five Flags.
“We’re just glad to get our hands back on this trophy,” beamed Elliott, who started second, after hoisting the Tom Dawson trophy.
Young Californian teenage sensation Zane Smith, a 16 year old who led a total of 40 laps Sunday, finished as the 300-lap race’s runner-up. Pole sitter Ty Majeski, who led the first 63 laps, came home third on a day that saw plenty of green-flag racing.
Dalton Sargeant, who finished runner-up to John Hunter Nemechek at last year’s Derby, came home fourth.
Bubba Pollard once again failed in his quest to win the one race he covets more than any other. Despite the disappointment of an up-and-down day, though, Pollard led 13 laps and finished fifth.
There were only five cautions, one a mandated competition yellow that flew after 75 consecutive laps under green. It was the lowest number of cautions in recent Derby history.
“That’s been the trend the last two or three years,” Elliott said of the few race stoppages. “And it’s one I think you’ll see a lot more going forward.”
There was brief chatter this week that Sunday’s race could be Elliott’s last run at Derby immortality before he embarks on what many have predicted will be a lengthy and distinguished Sprint Cup Series career. If it was, what a way to go out.
The 20 year old from Dawsonville, Ga., and son of recent NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Bill Elliott, is poised to replace some of the biggest shoes in all of racing.
With Gordon’s recent retirement, Chase Elliott — the 2014 NASCAR Xfinity Series championship — will wheel the iconic Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 next season.
Naturally, his short-track racing program must take a backseat to his NASCAR obligations.
“We’ll see,” was all Elliott offered when discussing a potential return to Five Flags. “We’re awfully happy to have the trophy back.”
Elliott’s comments came underneath the glowing, fluorescent lights of the technical inspection shed that sits inside the guard rail of Turn No. 3.
While Elliott was once again crowned the champion, he didn’t cross the start-finish line first.
That honor belonged to Kyle Busch Motorsports driver Christopher Bell. Ten days shy of his 21st birthday, Bell’s victory seemed improbable as he stormed through the loaded field from his 31st starting spot.
Turns out, there was reason to doubt the win. Chief technical inspector Ricky Brooks threw out Bell’s win because the No. 51 had too much left-side weight.
Brooks explained Five Flags rules state the left-side weight ratio is capped at 58 percent. The left-side weight ratio of Bell’s car was measured at 58.3 percent. Brooks had cautioned Bell and his team twice in tech before reaching his final decision.
“I think it’s clear who had the best car here, and the best driver,” Chris Gabehart, Bell’s crew chief, told Speed51. “He passed every one of them for position at least once. Let’s not lose sight what a talent Christopher Bell is.”
It was a karmic twist for Elliott, who had his own Derby fate decided in the shed two years ago. Elliott captured the 2013 Derby, but was disqualified when Brooks discovered Elliott’s car contained Tungsten, a prohibited metal under Derby rules.
“Our entire team has been there. It’s not fun,” said Elliott, who only led three official laps Sunday. “I hate it for Christopher. I know how he feels and his guys did a great job to get him in a position to win this race.”
Bell left the standing-room only crowd that flooded Pensacola’s high banks slackjawed with his performance in the 300-lap race.
He dominated despite starting 31st out of 37 cars.
“I’m just incredibly blessed to win this thing,” Bell said amongst a throng of camera flashes popping simultaneously immediately following the race and before the cars moved to tech. “This is what it’s all about. It’s a dream come true.”
That dream was quickly crushed once he reached Brooks’ affectionately known “Room of Doom.”
Moments after taking a “Polish victory lap” with the checkered flag, posing for celebratory photographs and accepting congratulations from Elliott and others in Victory Lane, and trying to express his whirlwind of emotions over the public address system, Bell and his No. 51 made the slow roll toward tech.
One of the Brooks’ first duties when cars arrive at tech is putting them on the electronic scales. When Bell and the No. 51 settled onto the platform, Brooks noticed an issue.
Brooks weighed the KBM car two additional times before finally determining the left side of Bell’s SLM contained too much weight, three-tenths over the allowed limit.
“When I weighed the (Elliott and Smith’s) cars, they were the same amount,” Brooks said. “They weren’t anywhere near what (Bell) was.”
Gabehart told Speed51.com they believe the buildup on the left-side tires came as a result of Bell’s victory lap.
“(Bell) is going to do a lot of great things in this sport,” Gabehart said, “because of the generosity of Kyle Busch Motorsports and Toyota.”
That’s an undeniable truth, but Brooks’s discovery seemingly helped explain why Bell had such an unbeatable ride Sunday. With more weight on the left side, his outside right tires held up better on those long green-flag runs the race featured.
Tire management and saving rubber for the end has long been a recipe for success at Five Flags, be it the typically chilly Derby or a muggy May night local feature.
But, as Bell made his mad dash from near the tail end, he and his crew eschewed conventional wisdom and stayed on track when the first caution waved with 66 laps completed while the leaders pitted.
It was somewhat of a head-scratcher at the time, but mostly seen as a strategic move for Bell to leverage his way into the top-five after starting close to the back.
Bell finally did come into the pits when the second caution flew on Lap 120, and his NASCAR-trained pit crew got him in and out in Sprint Cup Series time.
Bell was second by Lap 165 and swiped the lead for the first time from the defending champion Nemechek on Lap 201. Nemechek reclaimed the lead following a competition yellow at around Lap 265, but he didn’t have enough to stay in front of Bell.
Bell, who led 93 laps total, cleared Nemechek again for good on Lap 283.
In fact, Nemechek’s day ended five laps short of 300 when his No. 8 caught fire on the track. The race stayed green as Nemechek hustled into the pits where the car spun out, engulfed in flames, and nearly injured one of his crew members.
Naturally, Bell was overcome with emotions in Victory Lane, as the fans showered him with cheers.
“I don’t know what to say. This is incredible,” Bell said, choking back tears moments after being awarded the checkered flag and heavy trophy that already bore his name plate on the front. “This car carried me. It was so good today.”
Apparently, too good.
The disqualification marked the fourth time in the last nine years of the Derby the race winner had to hand over the Tom Dawson trophy.
Bell’s loss was the second time a Kyle Busch Motorsports driver was DQ’d following a Derby victory. In 2008, Brian Icker was stripped of his victory when the car was found to have an extra fan that kept the tires cool.
“It’s definitely not the same. It’s a different feeling,” Elliott said of winning by disqualification. “There’s not the same thrill. But at the same time, I’m getting to take this trophy home.”
Hopefully, for Five Flags’s loyal legions and short-track fans everywhere, it won’t be Elliott’s last shot at glory in Pensacola.
Fin St # Driver Laps Led
1 2 9 Chase Elliott 300 3
2 19 77 Zane Smith 300 40
3 1 91 Ty Majeski 300 63
4 4 5S Dalton Sargeant 300 0
5 18 26 Bubba Pollard 300 16
6 35 99 Casey Smith 300 0
7 3 48 Preston Peltier 300 23
8 15 9B William Byron 300 0
9 12 43 Derek Thorn 300 44
10 10 3 Kaz Grala 300 0
11 11 5H Daniel Hemric 300 0
12 28 17 Quin Houff 300 0
13 5 11 Logan Boyett 300 0
14 30 7 Corey LaJoie 299 0
15 27 67 Clay Jones 299 0
16 33 13 Cassius Clark 298 0
17 17 5 Jerry Artuso 297 0
18 34 29 Caleb Adrian 296 0
19 23 83 Scotty Ellis 295 0
20 7 21 Johanna Long 295 0
21 37 8 John Hunter Nemechek 294 18
22 32 15 Christian Eckes 291 0
23 21 2W Donnie Wilson 273 0
24 20 9K Derek Kraus 270 0
25 29 8G Noah Gragson 269 0
26 24 12 Harrison Burton 214 0
27 8 51N Stephen Nasse 190 0
28 6 7 Casey Roderick 175 0
29 22 45 Kyle Plott 167 0
30 16 2 D.J. Vanderley 165 0
31 26 42 Chad Finley 140 0
32 36 1 Garrett Jones 137 0
33 14 31 Kyle Grissom 63 0
34 13 112 Augie Grill 63 0
35 25 H2 Bret Holmes 62 0
36 9 20 Spencer Davis 29 0
37 31 51B Christopher Bell 300 93