Raphael Lessard stood on the cusp of winning the 51st Annual Snowball Derby late Sunday evening at Five Flags Speedway (FL). However, what appeared to be the makings of an epic duel between Lessard and Kyle Busch Motorsports teammate Noah Gragson faded with a late-race mechanical issue.
During stages of the most prestigious event in Super Late Model racing, Lessard was simply dominant. At one point, Lessard built a five-second lead on the competition, as the St. Joseph de Beauce, Quebec, Canada driver flexed his muscle.
While the car was not quite as strong in the later stages of the race, Lessard still had a shot to win after a late caution and a strong pit stop. Lessard lined up third on a restart with 14 laps to go, directly behind Gragson and leader Harrison Burton, who was on older tires.
That restart quickly devolved into chaos, as Burton stumbled on his older tires, stacking up the field. Bubba Pollard spun into the inside wall after contact from Ty Majeski, bringing out the caution once again.
Under that caution, track officials spotted fluid leaking from Lessard’s machine, leading to a black flag and a trip down pit road. Lessard finished 25th, nine laps shy of the race’s conclusion.
The premature ending to the day strongly disappointed Lessard, who struggled to put his emotions into words after having a chance at Snowball Derby history slip away, as Lessard believed he would be able to out-duel his teammate on the final restart and take the win.
“I don’t know,” Lessard told Speed51.com “It really sucks. We had an awesome car. I can’t thank enough Kyle Busch Motorsports, Mobil 1, Toyota.
“We had that race won, I think, there at the end,” Lessard added. “I was faster than the 18 car all race. I had that race. It sucks that the caution came out again.”
Lessard said the fluid came from the rear-end of his machine, a common issue among many teams throughout the weekend at Pensacola. However, his car was still running well, and Lessard felt officials would not have noticed the fluid if it weren’t for the Pollard incident.
“The rear-end was leaking at the end,” Lessard said. “I don’t know. They would have never called us to come down pit road if it weren’t for that last caution.”
Regardless of the cause, Lessard had a bitter pill to swallow, especially considering his strength throughout the 300-lap race.
“We were dominating at one point, faster than the whole field,” Lessard said. “It just got tighter on me. At the end, we came down pit road and had that race won. The car was faster. It just sucks.”
Along with the fame and notoriety of winning the Snowball Derby, a win Sunday could have earned Lessard a shot at moving up the racing ladder in the future. Instead, his 2018 season ends with the sting of defeat, as well as uncertainty about his future.
“We’ll see what the future brings,” Lessard said about the 2019 season. “I don’t have anything yet for next year. We’ll see.”
Race fans who missed the 51st Annual Snowball Derby can watch our Speed51.com broadcast of the event. Click here to watch an on-demand replay of the race. Fans can also click here to view our Trackside Now updates from the race.
-Story by: Zach Evans, Speed51.com Southeast Editor - Twitter: @ztevans
-Photo credit: Speed51.com