Five Flags Speedway

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12/7/2016

12/7/2016

Five Flags Speedway


Eckes-llent Victory: Teenage Driver’s Improbable Win Highlights Wild, Wacky 49th Annual Snowball Derby

By Chuck Corder

The race that couldn’t seemed to start didn’t want to end.

Delayed two days because of rain, the wait to crown the 49th annual Snowball Derby champion at Five Flags Speedway took longer than expected Tuesday night.

Beaucoup cautions and struggles in getting the 36-car field lined up following controlled pit stops caused the most prestigious short-track race in America to linger nearly 5 hours.

Once the ending finally came, though, the masses that flooded the famed half-mile asphalt oval were treated to the best finish in the distinguished history of the 300-lap Super Late Model race.

Sixteen-year-old Christian Eckes came out of nowhere in the closing laps to nip former Derby champion John Hunter Nemechek and hoist the Tom Dawson trophy.

“This is ridiculous. It’s crazy,� said a bewildered Eckes, whose Fury Racecars No. 15 team collected $22,500 for the win.

The edge-of-your-seat finish was just as crazy. Eckes’ .017-second margin of victory over Nemechek was the closest in race history. Rich Bickle Jr. clipped Gary St. Amant by a mere 0.11 seconds at the 1998 Derby where Bickle won the fourth of his all-time-leading five championships.

“I wanna see a replay. That was nuts,� said George Eckes, Christian’s proud papa.

For the sixth time in the last seven editions of the Derby, a teenager won short-track racing’s crown jewel.

At 16 and 26 days, Eckes became the second-youngest driver to win the Derby. NASCAR Monster Energy Cup budding star Chase Elliott had turned 16 less than a week before his first trip to Victory Lane at the Derby in 2011.

“It’s unreal. I never dreamed this could happen,� Eckes, a junior in high school, said through a mouthful of braces.

The finish injected some much-needed drama in a Derby that was plagued by more than a dozen yellows and problems with scoring as a result of the controlled cautions.

Track officials believed the controlled cautions, a Derby first, would help level the playing field in the pits between grassroots teams and those that brought in hired guns from NASCAR crews.

And while the intended goal was achieved — Dewitt, Mich., driver Chad Finley dominated a majority of the race and easily led the most laps in his family-owned No. 42 — trying to keep track of laps between computer-assisted transponders and also scoring by hand became a nuisance.

That isn’t to say the race lacked theater. The most intense moment of the night came just 33 laps from the finish.

Following a restart, Stephen Nasse was trying desperately to hold onto second as polesitter William Byron came charging from third. As the duo entered Turn No. 4, Byron got into Nasse and spun him into the outside wall.

As the field made their way around Pensacola’s high banks under caution, Nasse remained at the top of the racetrack and waited. When Byron came back around, Nasse came hurdling down and drove straight into the right side of the Kyle Busch Motorsports No. 9.

The feud lingered behind the wall, as Nasse made a mad dash across the infield to Byron’s pit with a trail of gawkers, expecting a good old-fashioned brawl, in hot pursuit. Fortunately, track officials and local deputies separated the two teams before any fisticuffs ensued.

“It was a heckuva race and it was awesome to have a close finish,� said Nemechek, who also finished runner-up in Saturday night’s Allen Turner Snowflake 100 for Pro Late Models. “We just finished a little bit short at the end.�

The last 23 laps of the 2016 running of the Snowball Derby is firmly entrenched in Derby lore and will easily rank among the race’s most memorable finishes.

It had it all. Lead changes, crossover moves, swapping paint and a last-lap, gutsy decision that paid off for Eckes.

Finley was still the race leader when the field came to green with 277 laps complete following the night’s last caution. After being perfect on restarts all night, Finley spun the tires and it opened the door for Ty Majeski to reclaim a lead he had for the first 42 laps Tuesday.

“We had an awesome racecar. I had the best car in the biggest race in the country. It’s tough to swallow,� said Finley, who was undone by battery issues.

“We were beating them back to the stripe all night. And when it didn’t happen there, I knew something was wrong.�

Nemechek made quick work of Majeski by passing the two-time-defending Governor’s Cup champion on the inside on Lap 288.

Instead of being content with a second-place car in his first-career Derby, Eckes seized the opportunity.

“It was time to go,� he said. “I just went as fast as I could.�

Eckes had pulled to Nemechek’s bumper with 295 laps complete and stuck his nose underneath Nemechek on Lap 298 to take a slim lead.

Nemechek countered with a crossover move of his own to fight back and wrestle the lead back.

“Rubbin’ is racin’, I guess,� Nemechek said.

But Eckes would not go gentle into that good night, fighting back on Nemechek’s bumper once again as the pair made their way into Turn No. 1 on the white-flag lap.

“Oh, wow, this is possible,� Eckes thought to himself as he got to the side of Nemechek on the final lap.

He made a daring move below Nemechek as the pair gunned it out of Turn No. 4. Side-by-side they floored it to the finish until Eckes edged his front fender across the line an eyelash ahead of Nemechek.

Eckes climbed out of his window in Victory Lane, pumping his fists to an appreciative and stunned audience that roared with delight.

When the camera’s flashes had stopped and he finally got a chance to put the Tom Dawson trophy down, Eckes laid with his back on the asphalt, basking in the glory and letting the moment wash over him.

The kid from Greenville, N.Y., a town south of Albany with a population of less than 5,000, wowed more than 10,000 in attendance. The packed house rose to its feet in the thrilling final revolutions of Tuesday’s race.

“By far, it’s the best victory I’ve had in my career,� said Eckes, who won his third consecutive late model race after victories in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Kenley, N.C. “We’ve been on a hot streak, but this is absolute crazy.�

So was Tuesday night. So was the finish.

So is, as always, the Snowball Derby.

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