Fifty-six Super Late Models composed of drivers from 19 states and three Canadian provinces as well as 49 Pro Late Models graced the historic Five Flags Speedway (FL) track surface Thursday to commence practice day at the half-mile oval.
Many ups and many downs were featured as teams readied for the 50th Annual Snowball Derby weekend.
Bubba Tops Both Overall Charts
Each day of each year in Pensacola, Bubba Pollard has experienced mixed fortunes and emotions at the Snowball Derby. 2017 though was probably the most relaxed and composed he has been, based on one interesting factor.
“Man, I’ve never talked to Speed51 so many times in one day in my life,” Pollard commented to Speed51.com powered by JEGS following the six hours of time Late Models were on the race track. “In years past I hadn’t talked to them once all day. It’s been pretty good.”
The Senoia, Georgia driver’s fastest Super Late Model run was 16.552 seconds, still more than four tenths off the qualifying track record.
“The Super could be a little better,” Pollard remarked. “We’ve got it dialed in where we want it and will work on it tomorrow.”
Pollard, a three-time winner at the Pensacola, Florida facility in 2017, was the only driver to eclipse the 17 second mark in Pro Late Model practice.
“We’re going to leave it loaded up (Friday) and focus on the Super car,” a satisfied Pollard said. “Overall, not a bad day. Two days left so anything can happen.”
Engine Swaps the Name of the Game for a Few
Every year at the Derby, the first day of on-track action always sends a few teams scratching their heads searching for a backup plan. This year has been no different.
Raphael Lessard’s car shut down within the first few minutes of practice, but his team immediately went to task trying to diagnose the issue and coming to a decision on what needed to take place.
“The first practice we went three laps and we blew up,” Lessard explained. “It is what it is, but my guys work really hard at David Gilliland Racing. They changed the motor to get it ready for last practice.”
During that final session, the Quebec teenager’s Super Late Model showed speed, something promising considering they had to find their way into 2016’s field via the last chance race.
“We are on old tires and mocked up at the end,” Lessard, who climbed to 10th in the final finishing order last year, continued. “I think we were trying some stuff. We know we have a good car. Now we’re trying to make it a little bit better and we ended up 11th. We’re much better than last year. I think I’m going to have good Toyota Camry and can qualify with no problem into the Snowball Derby.”
While Lessard was rather positive, Brandon McReynolds was left shaking his head wondering what could happen next in the coming days.
“I thought I had a little more forward drive there in the last lap but obviously it was starting to go and it blew up,” McReynolds, who solidly qualified for the 2016 Snowball Derby but was out of the race before the green flag, mentioned.
The KBR Development team has gone to work changing out the motor for Friday and beyond.
“It’s a little different package so that will be interesting,” McReynolds said. “Just got to make do with it. We were pretty damn good, but, I don’t know, we’ll see. Hopefully we got this out of the way early and the racing Gods will be good to us.”
Mingus Shows Speed Paired with Knowledgeable Team
The Snowball Derby past for Mason Mingus has been quite the roller coaster. In six attempts, he has only made the field twice, but does have one top-10 finish.
This year the Brentwood, Tennessee racer has paired up Wauters Motorsports, who have prepared countless talented drivers to success, including a Snowball Derby victory in 2004 with Steve Wallace.
“I’m pretty excited about it,” Mingus noted. “They’re always so good at this race track with a win and been second quite a few times. Hopefully we can get them a win here. This is the best car I think we’ve had here. We’ve had some good cars and some bad luck before. They brought together a really good piece. We just have to capitalize on it. Qualifying is key here.”
Being one of those fastest 30 cars on Friday evening has been pertinent among the work the Richie Wauters-led team focused on during Thursday practice. Mingus believes they have learned a good amount for when the time comes to run the best two laps possible.
“We made a bunch of gains on it today in the last practice and we were really fast,” the former ARCA and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series regular analyzed. “The track’s freeing up so that’s a good judgment for tomorrow. It’s going to be really free tomorrow night I think when it gets really cool. It always does here when the dew sets in. We’re going to go back and work on it to make sure we tighten it up enough for tomorrow night.”
Defending Snowflake 100 Winner Tutoring a Fellow Competitor
Although he was already an accomplished two-time Snowball Derby and Snowflake 100 winner, Augie Grill flew a little under the radar last year for the 2016 Snowflake 100 victory. This year in addition to his own two efforts, the Birmingham area veteran is assisting young Perry Patino.
The difference has been evident, as the 2017 “Show Me the Money” Pro Late Model runner-up at Montgomery Motor Speedway (AL) has been one of the favorites in recent months in the Deep South. It has been a boost for the 18-year-old driver who is searching to make it into the show after a couple past unsuccessful attempts.
“Our first Derby we were with Josh Hamner and I didn’t think we were too bad, but the rain really wasn’t on our side luck-wise,” Patino indicated. “The second time we had a broken rear end the whole weekend.
“But now, this is the fastest we’ve ever come, and we’ve had so much more confidence ever since we’ve been with Augie. Ever since we’ve been with him we’ve been a top three car. He’s helped out a ton.”
While many in both Late Model divisions are centered primarily on qualifying in the upcoming days, Patino and team, who additionally continue to receive support from the Hamner family, have been concentrating on the 100 laps set for Saturday.
“We’re real happy, especially with our race speed,” Patino said. “I don’t think we’re going to have any trouble making the race. We’ve had a little bit of numbness in the front tires. Augie got in and said the same thing. We’re going to do some bump stuff tomorrow and change some things up a little bit and see if we can pick up a tenth and a half.”
Notably absent from the top 20 speeds in the final session of Thursday were the trifecta of Kyle Busch Motorsports machines. Kyle Benjamin, shaking down the No. 51 car for boss Kyle Busch who is attending the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series banquet in Las Vegas, wound up 39th. Nevertheless, all three cars were not far off the top times, as the top 48 in that hour were separated by a less than eight-tenths of a second gap.
Connor Okrzesik was one driver who elected to pack up early, pleased with the handling of both the Super and Pro Late Model. The Grand Bay, Alabama 16-year-old made his way into both races in 2016 with a pair of lead lap finishes, and could find his way from being a dark horse to a top contender if they progress in the right direction.
Defending Snowball Derby winner Christian Eckes has been feeling under the weather, but was in good enough health to head out on the race track on multiple occasions on Thursday. The 17-year-old ended up fifth fastest on the charts in the final hour.
Fans can watch the final minutes of Super and Pro Late Model practice on-demand now as part of the five-day Snowball Derby video ticket on Speed51.com.
A list of complete practice times and more updates can be found on Speed51.com's Trackside Now.
-By Aaron Creed, Speed51.com Central NY & PA Editor – Twitter: @aaron_creed
-Photo credit: Speed51.com / MoJo Photos