Two Championships to be Determined Saturday Evening

Mystery Abounds Heading Into Night of Champions

By Chuck Corder

Six months ago, championships were a mere dream.

To make them a reality, there were checkereds to chase. Blood, sweat, and frustrations poured into long hours under the hard glow of buzzing lights.

For a few elite Late Model drivers, their championship moment arrives Saturday at Five Flags Speedway. For others, the night will be equally important as they chase bigger championships come December in Pensacola.

Before the 52nd annual Snowball Derby and Snowflake 100 arrive in less than 90 days, the regular season at the famed half-mile asphalt oval culminates Saturday with the Night of Champions. Fans can anticipate plenty of drama as the track crowns in the Deep South Cranes Blizzard Series (Super Late Models) and Allen Turner Hyundai Pro Late Model Series have yet to be decided.

“It’d be great to win a Pro championship at Five Flags, absolutely,” said 17-year-old Mobile driver Connor Okrzesik, who has a slim PLM lead and remains in the mix for the SLM title, too.

The gates open at 4 p.m. Saturday, with qualifying set for 4:30 p.m., and racing scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. Admission is $20 for adults; $17 for seniors, military, and students; and free for all kids 11-and-under.

Both finales will be decided by close margins. Entering the Blizzard Series 150, North Carolina’s Lucas Jones holds a razor-thin lead against a few title hopefuls. Okrzesik leads fellow teenager Jake Garcia, 14, by seven points heading into the Allen Turner Tune-Up 100.

“It has definitely been a great season for me,” said Okrzesik, who has two impressive wins against stacked fields, one of which he outdueled Kyle Busch. “But, you always think you could do better. You’re always resetting expectations just based on the race itself by how good of a car you have.

“At the end of the day, you’re always aiming for a win when you go to the racetrack.”

Points will be at a premium Saturday. Qualifying in both divisions awards five points to the pole sitter and the remainder of the top five receives one point less. Two points separate each position in the race.

Jones, 20, is just two points clear of 16-year-old Giovanni Bromante with three-time Blizzard Series champion Casey Roderick one shy of Bromante in third. A fourth and Roderick would break a tie with Bubba Pollard for most all-time Blizzard season titles.

“Man, that’d be great,” Roderick said. “I’d like to stand alone. That’d be cool to bring a championship home and also get win in the last Blizzard race of the season. I feel like we can do it.”

He’ll attempt to do it in a different ride, though, come Saturday. After a successful partnership decorated by more than 40 wins and string of series championships, Roderick parted ways after three years with short-track living legend Ronnie Sanders and his iconic red No. 18 machine.

Roderick will drive one of Donnie Wilson’s two Rowdy Manufacturing SLMs. Rowdy is the brainchild of Justin Oertel, owner of Hamke Race Cars, and NASCAR star Kyle Busch.

Roderick finished second only to Pollard in Wilson’s Rowdy ride during the Speed51 Super Select earlier this month at Lucas Oil Raceway (IN).

“I was pretty happy with our performance,” Roderick teased. “We just came up a little short. It was a group effort. Everyone came together with my situation.”

While he’s still searching for a PLM ride, Roderick has precious points to attack in the Blizzard Series and protect in the Southern Super Series, a title he won for the first time last year. While he’s trying to finish a few spots ahead of Jones to capture the Blizzard crown, Roderick is looking to pad his SSS points lead in.

Roderick enters Saturday’s penultimate race in Pensacola protecting a 32-point lead against Okrzesik. The SSS wraps up next month with the Hart to Heart 100 at New Smyrna Speedway. No driver has won back-to-back SSS championships.

“Donnie’s not racing himself,” Roderick said of Wilson, who will put Canadian Cole Butcher in his other Rowdy SLM. “I told him I didn’t wanna take away for what he does for fun, but he’s kind enough to let me drive. We’ll see if I can get him his first Blizzard win.”

Okrzesik is looking for the same. Despite a slew of close calls, he has yet to win a LM race at Pensacola’s high banks. Okrzesik sits atop the standings thanks to three runner-up finishes in each 100 lapper.

In some years, a string of seconds might’ve been good enough for Okrzesik to clinch the track title. But Garcia has been nipping at Okrzesik’s heels all year, finishing a mind-boggling third every race.

“He’s really good racer,” Okrzesik said of Garcia, “and has impressed a bunch of people this year.

“We’re just gonna try to do what we’ve done this season, and finish one spot ahead of where we did the last time. If we win the race, we win the championship.”