Gragson in a KBM car wins Snowball, Majeski, Choquette round out podium.

Gragson in a KBM car wins Snowball, Majeski, Choquette round out podium.

GRAGSON GRABS ONE: NASCAR Xfinity Driver Wins 51st Annual Snowball Derby Under the Lights

Updated By Chuck Corder

Closing a chapter in life is full of bittersweet moments.

It’s a nostalgic time, full of reflection as jubilation memories come flooding back. But, there’s the heartbreak of saying goodbye.

It’s going to take a long while for Noah Gragson to feel the bitter instead of the outright sweet he’s basking in now.

The 20-year-old Gragson, a Las Vegas native, won the 51st annual Snowball Derby Sunday at Five Flags Speedway in his swan song for Kyle Busch Motorsports.

“After a two-year stretch with KBM,” said Gragson, who will be driving for JR Motorsports in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series in 2019, “it’s nice to get hang to a banner up. It feels surreal; a dream come true.”

Gragson topped a field of 36 to capture short-track racing’s most coveted crown jewel and hoist the Tom Dawson trophy with, of course, the iconic plastic snowball that sits atop it.

He led twice Sunday for a total of 12 laps, but it was the last six that mattered most after he passed pole sitter Harrison Burton following a restart on Lap 294.

Gragson delivered a big-league burnout after he took the checkers, leaving a trail of smoke from Turn No. 4 to Turn No. 1. Gragson delivered on a tease he made during a pre-race interview with Speed51.com’s Bob Dillner that if he did win, he’d climb the catchfence. Once up on top, he flexed his firesuit muscles much to adulation of packed house.

“It feels so good to get a Snowball Derby win,” Gragson said. “To win my last race for Kyle Busch Motorsports before I make the move feels really special.”

Roush Fenway Racing driver Ty Majeski, who holds the Super Late Model track record (16.120 seconds) at Five Flags, put up a valiant charge toward Gragson in the closing laps, but finished as runner-up. A year after finishing second, West Palm Beach Late Model hotshoe Jeff Choquette rounded out the podium.

“This thing was a rocket,” Majeski said. “I’m really proud of my guys. One more lap and we would’ve won the race. We had the best car once the sun went down.”

Choquette finished second at last year’s Derby to Kyle Busch, Gragson’s now-former boss. And, in another interesting connection to Gragson, Choquette’s pit crew was a JR Motorsports team.

Bubba Pollard ran in the top-10 for most of the day, but was undone on a late-race crash that saw the No. 26 finish 26th. Casey Roderick, who this season became the first driver to win both Super and Pro Late Model track championships at Five Flags Speedway in one year, finished fifth.

Alabama teenage wunderkind Connor Okrzesik continued to turn heads Sunday with a fourth-place result.

The race started nearly 90 minutes past its traditional 2 p.m. Sunday drop of the green flag because of the torrential downpour that rocked Pensacola throughout Saturday.

Track officials spent the morning drying the track with a road dryer donated by Panhandle Grading and Paving. After the speedway was deemed raceable, Chris Davidson, Carson Hocevar, Paul Shafer and Jack Dossey assumed the final four spots from the last chance race to round out the 36-car field.

Once set, Burton led the sport’s best Super Late Model drivers from 15 states and Canada to the drop of the green flag underneath a blinding sun.

Except for a momentary jockeying for the lead with Choquette around Lap 67, Burton led all but one of the opening century of the 300-lap race until most of the entire field came to the pits for the first time at Lap 91.

But, with a Cup-caliber pit crew working on his No. 18, Gragson was able to pit every driver off pit row and assume the lead for the first time Sunday.

“I wouldn’t be here without my team,” Gragson said. “This is huge for me. These Super Late Models, we’ve struggled a little bit. They’re one of the hardest things I’ve ever driven, if not the hardest.”

A few moments after the race of pit row, Raphaél Lessard — Gragson’s KBM teammate — took control of the race on Lap 106.

The Canadian quickly built a half-straightaway lead until another caution flew with 168 laps complete, which brought the leaders back to the pits for adjustments.

This time, Choquette and his JR Motorsports crew won the battle and the south Florida driver was leading the most prestigious race in America with less than 100 laps remaining.

“The pit crew did an awesome job,” Choquette said. “It was just a matter of the car getting too tight late.

“We didn’t take into account that it would be this dark.”

That opened the door for Majeski, who briefly led until Burton reclaimed the lead on Lap 274.

But when the race’s final caution flew with 278 laps complete, Burton had to stay out on the track while his closest rivals pitted for their final set of tires and last-minute changes. Burton’s team used his final set of rubber 50 laps earlier.

It’s a tale as old as 1968: To win the Snowball Derby, you must save your tires.

Burton’s gameplan backfired and opened the door for Gragson, whose storybook finish was the perfect adieu to KBM.

“Kyle Busch has been my idol since I was growing up,” Gragson said. “I collected all of his die-cast cars. I had never been able to figure this place out before the weekend. It’s a dream come true.”

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