The 48th annual Snowball Derby weekend got off to a thrilling start Thursday night at Five Flags Speedway as fans in the stands and watching on Speed51 TV saw down-to-the-wire finishes for the Butler U-Pull-It Bomber and Beef O’Brady Sportsman Divisions.
Robert Loper held off comeback efforts from B.J. Leytham and Matt Jackson down a final four-lap stretch to claim the Bomber victory. Loper squirrelled to the lead on an early restart and watched as his closest competitors stumbled. B.J. Leytham stopped on the track during the first caution and was sent to the rear, while division points champion Gino Denmark got swept up in a wreck along with Jackson at lap 18.
Both Leytham and Jackson quickly stormed back through the field and got one final crack at Loper with a final restart, but both drivers had used up a little too much getting through the field and wound up bothering each other more to settle second than get any legitimate chance at the elated Loper.
“I got to thank a lot of people, who helped put this car back together night after night because we flipped it in our last race at Mobile”, Loper told the 51TV cameras. “I just have so many friends here and they make it all worth it. This win is very very special. This is my first year in these big cars and I wanted to prove I belonged here.”
Later in the evening, Leytham failed post-race inspection and was stripped of his runner-up finish.
Brannon Fowler also had plenty of adventure in claiming his 50-lap feature victory for the Sportsman cars. He stalked pole sitter and new track record holder Steve Buttrick through the first 25 laps before taking the lead in a pack of lapped traffic, at one point weaving through three lanes of traffic to draw even for the top spot.
The pass wouldn’t count though as a caution reverted the running order back to the last completed lap. Fowler waited again until lapped traffic came to his aid and passed Buttrick down the backstretch on lap 38. Buttrick made a thrilling four-wide move – sandwiching two lapped cars – to claim the lead back temporarily on lap 40.
But Buttrick get bounced around some more from Connor Okrzesik and Buttrick wound up running the next ten laps sliding back through the field with a car whose left front tire was going down to the rim.
Okrzesik and Randy Thompson, himself hampered by right side sheet metal peeled back over the car, couldn’t challenge Fowler from there and Fowler made it back-to-back wins at the Derby.
“The car was on a rail all night”, Fowler said to the cheering crowd. “It never went away. We fought problems all year long where the car would fade, go away on the long run. It stayed with us all night. We we were able to put pressure on Steve and get on his outside. Had a good strong battle there for the lead and boy, I’m glad we got out on top.”
–Story by Tim Quievryn // Speed51.com Southeast Editor // @thethirdturn
— Photos by Bruce Nuttleman/Speed51.com Photos