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Five Flags Speedway

The Friendly Rivalry Continues: Pensacola, Mobile Each Notch Snowball Champions as Locals Kickoff 47th annual event


By Chuck Corder

Mark Barnhill’s 2014 season had already been memorable before this week.

The journeyman driver from Irvington, Ala., won the Sportsman track title at his home track of Mobile International Speedway.

But on Thursday, Barnhill’s year appeared to get a whole lot better when he crossed Mobile Bay and came to Five Flags Speedway for the opening of the 47th annual Snowball Derby.

Barnhill, momentarily that is, achieved short-track racing immortality by crossing the finish line first and capturing the Snowball crown in the Beef "O" Brady's Sportsman class. But in technical inspection, Barnhill's win was tossed out due to unapproved  steering component, pushing Molino driver Brannon Fowler up from his runner-up spot for his first career Snowball championship.

“It was a solid way to end the year," Fowler said moments after the race when he thought second to Barnhill was his ultimate destiny. "Overall, it was a successful season.�

Before his disqualification, Barnhill outraced 21 other cars and led the final 45 laps in sprinting to the checkered flag Thursday.

Barnhill, who took the lead on lap 6 from pole sitter Fowler following a restart, endured three red flags — the longest of which concerned Lee “Red Dog� Reynolds, Barnhill’s close friend — for his apparent 50-lap victory.

“I’ve been trying to do this for five years now,� Barnhill said. “We finally got it done. It was good racing tonight, I guess. I hope my friend Lee is OK.�

Reynolds, beloved by many of his fellow drivers, was involved in a vicious collision with two other cars just six laps that left him trapped inside his No. 32.

Track officials had to remove the car’s roof to retrieve Reynolds, who was then transported to a local hospital for precautionary measures.

While the red flag was out to work on Reynolds, four-time defending Sportsman Snowball champion Steve Buttrick pitted for a flat tire.

That basically ended his quest for five. Buttrick restarted tail end of the field and quickly got caught up in a multi-car wreck as he stormed through the crowded field trying to make up ground.

He finished 16th.

Barnhill met no such demise on the track, keeping his toughest challengers at bay all night. Little did he know his biggest hurdle would be escaping the vaunted "Room of Doom."

“The car was real good,� he said. “I was trying to save my stuff there at the start. I had to work to get around Brannon (Fowler). He’s tough. The right rear (tire) felt like it was as big as a basketball there at the end.�

Fowler drove the wheels off his No. 00 trying to get around Barnhill. But when the time came for Fowler to make his move, the night’s fast qualifier didn’t have the tires.

“We just didn’t have quite the car to stay up under us for this 50 lapper,� said Fowler, who led the opening five laps.

Cantonment driver Randy Thompson had his best showing all season at the best time of the year. After a nightmarish 2014, Thompson rebounded in a big way and landed on the podium Thursday. His third-place finish was upgraded to runner-up once Barnhill's disqualification became legitimate.

He threatened to overtake Fowler on several occasions, but never could make a pass stick. Still, his second-place trophy will look good alongside his overflowing trophy case at home.

Butler U-Pull-It Bombers Snowball Derby

B.J. Leytham certainly was consistent from March to December.

Consistently winning, that is.

The Mobile driver bookended his historic season Thursday night by getting the 47th annual Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway off with a bang.

Leytham, who at one point in 2014 won 19 straight races between Pensacola and Mobile International Speedway, led all 30 laps for his second consecutive Snowball Derby title for the Butler U-Pull-It Bombers division.

“It was all about the setup,� said Leytham, who at one point this year won 19 consecutive races between Five Flags and Mobile International Speedway. “This car, it’s phenomenal. I’m just hanging on for the ride.�

With Leytham easily the class of the 29-car field, Alabama drivers left their mark by sweeping the podium.

In fact, only reigning Bombers track champion Michael Nelson was able to crack the top-five thanks to his fourth-place finish.

Matt Jackson of Citronelle, Ala., finished runner-up to Leytham. Colin Crawford-Kraft, who hails from Grand Bay, Ala., and is the son of former NASCAR trucks star Rick Crawford, rounded out the podium.

“B.J. has always been fast. We’ve been chasing him for a while now,� Jackson said. “We had a decent car. It takes a lot to come over here, but we love the Snowball Derby.�

Leytham, as he was all year along, owned Thursday night. He dominated in qualifying (21.471 seconds), shattering the previous track record by almost 0.3 seconds.

When the opening green flag dropped, Leytham never bobbled.

As cautions mounted and the field began to whittle itself down, Leytham stuck to his gameplan and focused on the asphalt in front of me instead of any of the hijinks occurring behind him.

“The other cars are getting faster, and catching up,� Leytham said. “Guys seem to be doing their homework.�

They’ll have to keep studying to beat Leytham.

If they wanted motivation for next year, Leytham gave it to them with a smoke-filled victory lap celebration around the famed half-mile asphalt oval.

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