2x Blizzard Series Champ Roderick Returns to 5 Flags, Captures Allen Turner PLM Series Opener
By Chuck Corder
The seat inside Ronnie Sanders’ famed No. 18 has always been a hot commodity
Sanders, of course, was the first to occupy the coveted spot during a 41-year short-track career that saw him morph into one of the titans of the sport, highlighted by wins at prestigious races, including the 1977 Snowball Derby.
In recent years, acting as the big red machine’s crew chief, late model champions Bubba Pollard, Clay Alexander and Hunter Robbins were just three of the young hotshoes in Sanders’ stable. Pollard won an incomprehensible 19 races one season under Sanders’ guidance.
Arguably, neither Pollard nor the other two, can begin to compare to Sanders’ current driver. Casey Roderick is the real McCoy. Teamed with Sanders, the two combine to create a late model monster.
Their torrid start to 2017 got hotter Friday night at Five Flags Speedway. Roderick won the Allen Turner Pro Late Model 100 rather convincingly, giving driver and crew chief their fourth major in just three months.
“That was unbelievable,” said Roderick, who led all but 13 laps Friday night. “By far, that’s the best car I’ve had here in the Pro division here in Pensacola. We struggled with our Pro car last year to keep the car going on the long runs. Since the start of year, it’s been unreal. I’m just glad I get to drive this No. 18.”
Roderick’s biggest sweat of the night came just past the halfway point of the 100 lapper. The Lawrenceville, Ga., native led every lap until Texan driver Chris Davidson chased down Roderick on Lap 58 and successfully made the pass.
Roderick tried to slingshot immediately, but to no avail. Davidson quickly built a sizeable lead.
“He was better at that time,” admitted Roderick, the two-time defending Deep South Cranes Blizzard Series champion for Super Late Models. “That’s way races are the way they are. You’ve gotta play it out and not panic.”
After being out in clean air for a baker’s dozen laps, Davidson stumbled upon a nest of lapped cars.
One man’s trash is another’s treasure. Davidson’ abrupt inconvenience became Roderick’s opportunity.
The No. 18 quickly made up ground on the No. 14 and Roderick surprised Davidson with how effortlessly and rapidly he closed the gap between the two leaders.
With 29 laps remaining, Davidson and Roderick were now battling side-by-side. But not for long, as Roderick smoothly slid by Davidson on the inside to reclaim a lead he never relinquished again. In fact, Roderick built his biggest lead of the night in the final 25 laps.
“We worked real hard,” Davidson said. “We thought we had him, and it turns out we didn’t.”
Ryan Paul, Justin South and Wayne Niedecken Jr. rounded out the top-five.
The much-anticipated rematch of Roderick and Jeff Choquette never materialized because the Jett Concrete No. 9 had tire issues. The pair waged a summer-long battle in 2016 with Choquette getting the better of Roderick to the tune of five straight wins.
After Roderick caught Davidson napping, the only suspense left came with 10 left when lapped traffic once again became an issue.
A handful of cars nearly wrecked directly in front of Roderick going into Turn No. 3. Instead, the 24-year-old calmly wove his way through the nest of stragglers and returned to clean air.
“It worked out in our favor,” Roderick said.
Earlier in the night, 20-something Riley Thornton created a buzz when he out-qualified every other car in the 26-car field with a blazing time of 16.650 seconds.
Thronton, a Georgian, was no newcomer to Pensacola’s high banks. He turned heads in 2013 when, at 17, he won the Pro Trucks Snowball Derby. In a May 2015 start at Five Flags, Thornton set the fast time in another Allen Turner PLM 100-lapper like the one Friday.
Beef “O” Brady’s Pro Trucks
Colt James sounded dumbfounded and confused.
For 22 of the 30-lap Beef “O” Brady’s Pro Trucks feature, James had little to contend with Steve “Chopper” Stagner, following the pink-and-black No. 38 around Five Flags Speedway like he was Stagner’s shadow.
So when the feature’s lone caution flew with eight laps to go, James and the rest of 18-car field knew they had to seize their opportunity.
Stagner dominated the entire feature, but the late caution cost him the win. Two laps after the restart, James took the lead from Stagner coming out of Turn No. 2.
“I don’t know how we won,” said James, who won the opening Pro Trucks feature last month. “We definitely did not have the winning truck tonight. On that restart, we were just like a bulldog and someone was waving a steak in front of my face.”
Originally from Austin, Texas, James now lives in Newton, N.C., where he works for Roush Yates Engines.
Jason Welch and Andrew Johnson rounded out the podium, respectively.
The Dock on Pensacola Beach Sportsmen
With just a six-car field, it was hard to imagine a climatic finish.
But that’s just what Mark Barnhill and Brannon Fowler gave Five Flags Speedway fans in The Dock on Pensacola Beach Sportsmen 25-lap feature Friday night.
Barnhill, who hails from Theodore, Ala., led wire-to-wire to score his first win of the season in Pensacola. Fowler of Molino finished second and Cantonment’s Steve Buttrick rounded out the podium.
“I knew Brannon was coming,” said Barnhill, who finished second at the March 5 season opener. “I saw him coming with about five or six laps to go.
“I thought I was in trouble. At the start, it was a cake. But at the end, it really was a workout.”
Barnhill took the lead on the opening lap, zooming past Jim Pokrant in Turn No. 2. He built a nearly two-second lead as Fowler and Buttrick fought over second place for a number of laps.
After finally clearing Buttrick on Lap 10, Fowler set his eyes on Barnhill. By Lap 16, Barnhill had a mirror-full of Fowler.
The two made contact several times, but the race remained clean as Fowler saw no reason to force the issue.
“It was a great run,” said Fowler, who won the season opener last month. “Congratulations to Mark. They’re competitive and always run strong.
“I certainly felt like we had the best car, but I wasn’t gonna (wreck) him to get a win. I’m very happy with the results of the car so far this season.”
Lloyd’s Glass Pure Stocks
The finish made up for the start.
The Lloyd’s Glass Pure Stocks 20-lap feature Friday night at Five Flags Speedway had a tough time finding its tempo, as the caution flag flew four separate times in the opening eight laps. Six total yellows plagued the race’s rhythm.
When the white flag waved, though, that’s when things got interesting. Johnathan Day and Robert Loper traded paint around the famed half-mile asphalt oval on the final lap until Loper went for a spin in Turn No. 3.
Day checked up and deftly maneuvered around Loper to score his second victory in as many starts this season.
“I’m just disappointed,” a frustrated Day said. “I don’t like things to end this way. Two weeks in a row put on good show.
“It is what it is. I’ve got a torn-up racecar and I’m sure (Loper) does too.”
The action didn’t stop once Day hoisted the checkered flag, though. Loper took exception with Day’s aggressive racing and confronted his fellow Alabama driver before Day reached Victory Lane.
Loper sprinted toward Day and a mass of bodies went tumbling to the ground before local deputies separated the two camps.
In full disclosure, Day was just getting payback on Loper, who spun Day on the second lap of the night. Day came to the pits after the incident, removed the hood off his gray No. 11 and patiently made his way back toward the front.
Pensacola’s Robert Balkum finished runner-up and Tommie Blocker came home third.
“We just didn’t have the fastest car,” Balkum summed up his night succinctly.
Butch Harvell Jr., being mentored by Five Flags favorite Okie Mason, had a terrific night. He led a handful of laps and was a top-five car all night before finishing fourth.