Five Flags Speedway

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Five Flags Speedway

Speed falls short to tough tires, skill and luck in Snowball Derby

In his three-year racing experience at the Snowball Derby, there is one aspect Chase Elliott has learned above anything else.

“There is just a certain level of patience that you have to have in order to do well in this thing,� said Elliott, who will start ninth in today’s 44th annual Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway.

How well he knows.

A year ago, Elliott had one of the fastest cars. With less than 10 scheduled laps remaining, the rising star and teenage son of one of NASCAR’s all-time greatest drivers, Bill Elliott, was in second place.

Elliott had already won the Snowflake 100 the previous night in a Pro Late Model car. Now, he was one good pass away from being the youngest driver to win the Snowball Derby.

But then it happened. Within an instant, Elliott was in the wall at Turn 1. His day was done. He was part of a wild, wreck-filled, extended-lap finish that Pensacola’s Johanna Long, then 18, survived, thrived and turned into a memorable victory.

“It’s very rare to put yourself in position to win this race, and last year we were in position and then kinda shot ourselves in the foot,� said Elliott, who turned 16 on Nov. 28. “Hopefully, this year, we can get to the end of the race, be in a position to win, and make the right calls.�

Carnage part of charm

But Elliott knows it’s not easy. That is part of the challenge and the charm of the Snowball Derby.

The fastest car with 50 laps to go is frequently not the winning car.

This is a 300-lap race that tests skill, strategic decisions, requires luck and often includes plenty of racing carnage.

In the final 30 laps a year ago, they could have put tow trucks outside of every turn to handle the wrecks.

“It’s about having good tires,� said Scott Carlson, the Pensacola business owner who has raced in the Snowball Derby, or tried to qualify for the race, every year since 1996.

“You just have to have good track position and keep good track position. One year, I know I had a great chance to win. I had a pretty fast car and got crashed out with 30 to go

“If you have good tires and you are chasing someone who doesn’t have good tires, then they are a lot more susceptible for getting spun out.�

Racing tires wear down fast at Five Flags. The rubber may last 50 green flag laps before the tires start losing grip.

The track surface is abrasive, sort of like an asphalt version of sandpaper. But that’s also an element that drivers love. They are hoping it’s never resurfaced — although eventually it will need to be — because it increases the skill and good fortune needed to win the race.

“And that’s what makes Five Flags Speedway special,� said Bob Dillner, owner of and NASCAR pit row reporter on The Speed Channel. “It’s an abrasive track, so that puts everything back in the driver.

“They have to have that egg underneath the throttle and that’s why the best drivers are up front at the end of the Snowball Derby.�

Coast-to-coast lure

The lure of the race attracted 57 entries from coast-to-coast, hoping to make one of the Top 30 qualifying spots, or get into the final four track positions through Saturday’s last chance race.

They include sons of NASCAR drivers like Elliott, Ross Kenseth and Stevie Wallace, and veteran short track stars like Augie Grill, a two-time Snowball Derby winner, who always competes well at Five Flags.

“This is not a race about the money, it’s really not,� Dillner said. “The winner gets, what, $22,500? It’s all about holding that Snowball Derby trophy and knowing you’ve won this race.�

It’s a feat pole-sitter Bubba Pollard wants to attain. He enters today’s event as a pre-race favorite, aside from his starting position and track-record qualifying time. The 24-year-old Senoia, Ga., resident has won 19 races this season, including twice at Five Flags.

But in five previous Snowball Derbys, he’s run into bad luck or had other cars run into him.

“This is the biggest race in the country,� he said. “This is where all your best drivers, your NASCAR guys, the best of the best, short-track racers anywhere have won these races. This is what it’s about. This is what we’re here for.�

Advice from past

When he starts alongside Pollard on Row 1, Andy Loden is hoping to avoid the dustups and the pileups that he saw last year. One of those took him out.

Earlier this week, former Snowball Derby winner Gary St. Amant told him to take the low road, literally, during most of the race, in order to avoid wrecks and be in position for the eventual 30 lap, attrition-depleted field at the end.

“He said, ‘Go out there, ride around on the bottom (of race track), don’t pass anybody on the high side, just stay on the bottom. Whatever you have to do to stay on the bottom and save your tires, that is what you have to do,’ � Pollard said.

“So that is somebody good to take advice from. Our first two years here haven’t been great. Hopefully (today) that will change.�

It’s a wish of all his peers.

Good luck in avoiding the wrecks.


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