Racing fans remember well the wise words of gentleman, scholar and big-hairy-American-winning-machine Ricky Bobby who copyrighted the phrase, “If you ain’t first, you’re last™.”
Rarely does a driver gun for second. That is, unless that spot holds vital importance. Such will be the case with the Allen Turner Hyundai Pro Late Models this Saturday night at Five Flags Speedway.
With Bret Holmes already clinching the track championship last month, one final mystery remains entering the Allen Turner Tuneup 100 on Saturday: Who prevails in a hotly-contested battle for second?
The “Flake,” as it has become affectionately known, will fall on the first Saturday in December during the 49thannual Snowball Derby. It is overwhelmingly regarded as the nation’s most prestigious PLM race and the appetizer toSunday’s 300-lap main course for Super Late Models.
“That’d mean a lot to us,” said 18-year-old rookie Cole Daffron, who currently sits fourth in the PLM standings. “That’s what we’re shooting for. Coming into the year, we really didn’t think we’d have a chance. Now, we do.”
Going into this Saturday’s 100-lap season finale, Daffron and four other PLM drivers are separated by 12 points or less for that coveted second spot.
Veteran Milton driver Wayne Niedecken, Jr. currently leads for the final berth, but is only two points ahead of West Palm Beach’s Jeff Choquette — riding a four-race win streak at Five Flags — and six points clear of Daffron.
“We’re just trying to make sure we have everything in line with the chassis and the car,” Niedecken said, “so we’re ahead of the newcomers. We just want to keep our nose clean. Last year, at this time, we had a rough weekend and destroyed the car. I’m hoping for a better weekend this time around. The main thing is to have a good performance.”
Also, racing for a championship Saturday will be the Beef “O” Brady’s Pro Trucks (40 laps). The Dock on Pensacola Beach Sportsmen (25) and Butler U-Pull-It Bombers (20) will battle in their penultimate race before the Night of Champions next Saturday night, Sept. 24.
Gates open at 4 p.m. Saturday. Admission is $15 for adults; $12 for seniors, military and students; $5 for children ages 6 to 11; free for kids 5 and under.
Long-time champions in the sport, Niedecken and Choquette are no strangers to big-time late model racing and winning. But a guaranteed slot on the grid for the Flake is still a treasured accomplishment that means just as much to the veteran duo as it does to the rookie, Daffron.
“They know I’m 110 percent onboard because I know they’re 110 percent into it,” Choquette said of his Jett Racing Team owners.
Daffron, in his first full season racing late models on asphalt, has competed mostly on dirt tracks since he was a go-kart wunderkind at 9.
The Pell City, Ala., native grew up racing at Talladega Short Track. Daffron was a national champion on dirt by the time he was 11 in 2007. He always felt drawn to asphalt racing, though, and it wasn’t primarily because he got to interact with Sprint Cup Series stars, such as Carl Edwards, Trevor Bayne and Tony Stewart, on the weekends NASCAR would invade the Superspeedway.
“We’d race at the dirt track on the Thursday night every time they came into town and I was able to get some tips from a few (Sprint Cup) drivers,” Daffron remembered fondly. “I’ve always thought asphalt would be a lot better for me than dirt. It comes to me a lot quicker.”
Daffron has improved his learning curve this season thanks to Holmes, who also grew up racing at Talladega Short Track. The two quickly bonded, and Daffron has now inherited Jim Barfield, Holmes’ old crew chief, as his chief.
Daffron is a real student of the sport. The recent high school graduate spends all his time working on the car and reviewing videos online to improve.
“Honestly, it’s all I do,” he said. “I study it 24/7, on film, on in-car cameras to know when I should be letting off the gas and when to get back on it.
“I’ve gotta focus really hard for Saturday. I have to make sure we get a good qualifying spot and be up front where the chances of a wreck is unlikely.”
Niedecken experienced that ugly side during the PLM season finale last year.
The son of Wayne Niedecken, Sr., the inaugural Snowball Derby champion and the first two-time winner of short-tracking racing’s most prestigious event, “Junior” has enjoyed a rebirth the last two seasons.
Multiple wins have created new opportunities for sponsorships, such as the agreement he has with the Pensacola Blue Wahoos — the Double-A affiliate of Major League Baseball’s Cincinnati Reds.
Niedecken got all Blue Wahoos players and coaches to sign the hood of his No. 99. He plans on presenting it to Capstone Academy for the school to auction off for its fundraising efforts.
But, first and foremost, Niedecken hopes on Saturday he can put room between himself and the other drivers vying for second, ensuring himself a starting spot in the Snowflake 100.
“The main thing is to have everything as good as you can get it,” he said. “The last race, I feel like we made some gains on the car. We qualified better and ran a little bit better than we had been. We wanna get our ducks in a row and be a fast car this weekend.”
-By Chuck Corder, Five Flags Speedway
-Photo credit: Speed51.com