There may not be a long list of theme parks in the Gulf Coast region, but John Hunter Nemechek’s visit to Pensacola, Florida was a roller coaster ride this past weekend. Nemechek, who entered the weekend with a chance to become just the fourth driver to win back-to-back Snowball Derbys, left Five Flags Speedway on Sunday with a trophy and a charcoaled race car.
The weekend for Nemechek kicked off with an eighth-place Snowball Derby qualifying effort during Friday night’s NASH 102.7 FM Pole Night. That probably wasn’t exactly what he was looking for, but it was good enough to lock him into the show and gave him something to work with for the 300-lap race.
Unfortunately for Nemechek, his top-10 starting spot in the Snowball Derby would only be valid for a small period of time. He pulled into post-qualifying technical inspection where he was found to be in violation of Approved Body Configuration (ABC) rules.
His qualifying time was disallowed and he was forced to accept the most recent Snowball Derby winner’s provisional, giving him the 37th starting spot for Sunday’s race.
Saturday served as the high point for Nemechek’s roller coaster weekend as he qualified second and led 94 of the 100 laps to win his first career Snowflake 100. That set up the possibility for a history-making weekend as Nemechek had the opportunity to become the first driver to ever sweep the Snowflake 100 and Snowball Derby.
Starting from the 37th spot in the Derby, Nemechek quickly started picking off positions as he made his way to the front. With some pit strategy involved, he was able to work his way into the top-five before eventually taking the lead for the first time on lap 190.
Nemechek would give up the lead 10 laps later before eventually charging back to the front to line up next to Christopher Bell on a restart with 25 laps to go. He took the lead on that restart and with less than 20 laps to go seemed to be in a good position to win his second straight Snowball Derby.
That’s when he began to fade and trouble struck. As he circled the half-mile race track, a noticeable amount of smoke began to pour out of the No. 8 Chevrolet. A few laps later, that smoke turned into fire as flames began shooting out from under the front end of the car.
With six laps to go, Nemechek brought his car down pit road and as he slowed down the flames became more visible. As he pulled into his pit stall, due to the lack of brakes, he slid into the team’s pit box and made contact with a pair of crew members.
Nemechek escaped from the car without injury, while his Car Chief Austin Pollak was transported to a nearby hospital.
On Sunday night, Pollak used Twitter to update those concerned about his status.
“Well hairline fracture in my left knee tibia and a bit of soft tissue damage,” Pollak Tweeted. “On crutches and immobilizer bract ‘til I can see doc at home.
“Wanna thank everyone who reached out with prayers and well wishes. Truly humbled by all of you. Thank you very much.”
Long Runs Hurt Pollard’s Strategy
Only six cautions, one of which was a competition caution, slowed the pace during Sunday’s Snowball Derby, and that wasn’t the type of race that Bubba Pollard planned for.
A 75-lap green flag run leading up to the competition caution on lap 265 saw him fall back rapidly through the field before nearly falling one lap down. After making a pit stop, the Georgia driver made a strong charge towards the front during the final 25-lap green flag run to finish fifth.
“We had a fast race car, it just never played in our favor with the cautions,” said Pollard. “You never see long green flag runs like that and it was kind of an odd Derby. We had an extra set of tires in the pits waiting for about 30 to go and never could get it. We had a really good car, just nothing to show for it.
Pollard’s fifth-place finish is the second top-five run of his career at the Snowball Derby. He says that coming up short in the race is something that frustrates him, but is not necessarily something that eats away at him.
“You’ve gotta look forward to the next one. The car is in one piece, so you just have to go home and make it faster. We’ll come back and try it again next year.”
Clark Wants to Do It All Over Again
In his third attempt at the Snowball Derby, Cassius Clark had his strongest run yet Sunday afternoon with the King Racing team. But yet he was still left to wonder what could have been at the end of the day.
Clark of Farmington, Maine battled mechanical issues throughout the weekend that began with starter issues during Thursday’s practice session. When that issue was fixed, he was able to start tuning on the setup of the car but wasn’t able to find enough to qualify into the race on time.
Starting 12th in the last chance race, he moved through the field to finish third and lock his way into the big show.
Starting near Christopher Bell and John Hunter Nemechek, Clark followed the two through the field not letting them out of his sights. He found his way up into the top-10 following the first caution of the race and battled for positions near the top-10 throughout the race before a lug nut issue relegated him to a 16th-place finish.
“On the last pit stop the right rear lugs, I only had two lugs on it, so the wheel was falling off the damn thing,” Clark explained. “That’s why I was riding around at the end, the right rear wheel was nearly falling off it.
“It was a strong car. I just wish we had some track position and got up front there. I don’t think we had the car to win it, the 51 (Bell) was the class of the field but as far as everybody else, I raced with Nemechek through that first long stint and he never got away from me.”
With all of the issues that plagued him throughout the week, Clark was left wondering what could have been if things went more smoothly.
“We wish we could do it all over again because we had carburetor issues and didn’t even realize it until the last chance race. I was basically driving with a two-barrel carburetor all weekend. I was kind of complaining about power and luckily we got that fixed before the race last night. We were just behind the whole time and just kind of chasing our tails.”
Modified Driver Released After Fiery Crash
Five Flags Speedway went silent Friday night when Modified competitor Frankie Martin’s car burst into flames, while he remained motionless in the race car. Fortunately, thanks to the quick response of those on the scene, the fire was put out quickly and Martin was removed from the car.
He was transported to a local hospital due to unspecified injuries. According to Five Flags Speedway officials, Martin was released from the hospital as of Saturday afternoon and was at home resting comfortably.
-By Brandon Paul, Speed51.com Editor – Twitter: @Brandon_Paul51
-Photo credit: Speed51 TV