Thursday practice action for the 49th Annual Snowball Derby saw very few mishaps, but featured some with smiles on their faces and others scratching their heads.
Night and Day from One Year to Another for Future Stars
One year ago, two young competitors were scrambling to simply get in the show at Five Flags Speedway. On 49th Annual Snowball Derby practice day, Todd Gilliland and Harrison Burton were at the top of the charts.
Gilliland failed to make last year’s running, but the team has turned things around thanks to a number of factors after finishing the day as the fastest with a time of 16.635 seconds.
“We’re finding a couple issues, but my whole David Gilliland Racing team is working really hard,” Gilliland told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “Not that they weren’t last year, but I feel like we’re so much more prepared this year with our first season of Super Late Model competition under our belts.”
His fellow teenage teammate has provided beneficial feedback while Gilliland competed away from the Super Late Model ranks for much of 2016, which he feels give the group confidence as the days go on.
“Raphael (Lessard), my teammate, getting four CARS Tour wins, I feel like that’s just given everyone a lot of confidence going into this race,” Gilliland documented. “I don’t know if we’ll have a shot for the pole, but we sure are going to try. I feel like if we get our car a little bit better we’ll be in the hunt.”
At this time last year, Burton and team were rebuilding their primary car into the night after a nasty practice wreck. On Thursday, the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East emerged as one of the favorites going into qualifying day tomorrow.
“I’m really happy with our car in race trim and in qualifying trim,” Burton recapped. “I think everyone is really focused on mock up speed right now and squeezing every last tenth you can out of your race car.”
Near the end of the afternoon, several teams elected to put on sticker tires in preparation for Friday, and the final practice sessions will be no different.
“I’m sure tomorrow will be mock run city,” Burton said. “It’s tough to even make this race so I think everyone is really nervous about qualifying even if they are not going to tell you that they are.”
Despite the butterflies, Burton remains confident that they will have a shot to be fastest at the end of the evening.
“Obviously, you’ve got to be the best, right? You’ve got to go out and at least try. I’ll be happy if I make the race, but we won’t be 100% satisfied unless we’re on the pole. We’re really excited to give it a shot for sure.”
Thorn’s Rough Day Results in Switch to Backup
Derek Thorn and the Campbell Motorsports team has always been a contender since they began coming to the Derby. On practice day this year, the 2016 SRL Southwest Tour Series champion was not even in the top 20.
The California racer’s No. 43 would not respond to changes despite their best efforts, according to Thorn. After discovering a cracked rear end with the primary car, the team ultimately elected to switch to their backup ride, which they ran in last year’s Snowball Derby.
Regional Favorites Also Struggle
Five Flags Speedway Blizzard Series champion Casey Roderick was perplexed with the way his car performed on Thursday. In his street clothes for part of the day working on figuring out the issues and forgetting about his Pro Late Model for the time being, the Georgia competitor was still working in his hauler on parts and adjustments needed at the end of the day.
"I have enough laps here to know what it should feel like," Roderick said earlier in the day during Speed51.com’s Trackside Now coverage. "It just ain't right. We've already found things wrong in the rear and the front. But we'll get it right."
Two-time Snowball Derby champion Augie Grill was the slowest in final practice.
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Regular Fast in Rare SLM Start
Spencer Gallagher only had competed at Five Flags Speedway once previously. It sure did not look that way after having a top 10 car in practice throughout the day. Preparations for Friday’s qualifying were the order of the day.
“Today’s been pretty much exclusively qualifying trim day and I think we’ve seen great success out of that for our Allegiant Travel Chevy,” Gallagher noted. “Being that we were first and second in the first two practices I think we’ve got something really good here. We’ve just been kind of nudging and rubbing on it all day. Not a ton of big changes. It’s always great when you’re fast right out the gate.”
Much of his success has been a result of some advice from his Truck Series teammate, Grant Enfinger, who assisted during a test session a couple weeks back.
“The value of having the ‘Finger around when you’re going around a place like this, some place he’s been to a million times in cars that he’s driven a million times, you can’t put a price tag on the value of having experience like that. Just having someone like that to lean on is great because this is a tough place to figure out.”
New Name to the Southeast Fastest in Snowflake Practice
Not many from the area or even on a national level have heard of the name Cole Butcher. The 20-year-old driver, from Nova Scotia, was surprisingly fastest at the end of Snowflake 100 Pro Late Model practice for the day.
“First official day ever being here,” Butcher said. “I’ve been having fun. It’s a great event. Everything’s going smoothly and we’re looking forward to the rest of the week.”
The 2016 Maritime Pro Stock Tour champion actually has a connection and an experience group surrounding him, in his car prepared for by 2016 Southern Super Series champion Donnie Wilson.
“It was actually Wesley Weed, who usually he does my tires when we go down to Oxford,” Butcher mentioned. “My father and him were talking and he recommended Donnie. He’s a great guy to deal with and he gave us a great crew and I could not ask for more.”
Despite never experiencing qualifying or a race with this extensive of an amount of national competition, Butcher is quite optimistic.
“It’s just a different car and a different motor combination, but you’ve just got to be patient in the race and be there at the end. We’ll pace ourselves and hopefully get a good starting position and the rest will figure itself out.”
Another Cole, Cole Anderson, was second fastest in practice.
The top Snowball Derby starting spots will be set on Friday, December 2 during NASH FM 102.7 Pole Night. The Faith Chapel Super Stocks and the Modifieds will each run 50-lap features.
The Pro Late Models take center stage on Saturday, December 3 for the Allen Turner Hyundai Snowflake 100. The 50-lap Last Chance Qualifier for the Snowball Derby and a 50-lap feature for the Beef O’Brady’s Pro Truck division will also run on Saturday night.
Then on Sunday, December 4 the green flag will fly over the 49th Annual Snowball Derby. The 300-lap race will begin at 2 p.m. CT.
For more information on the 49th Annual Snowball Derby weekend at Five Flags Speedway, visit www.snowballderby.com. All media credential requests and inquiries for the Snowball Derby can be sent to Pat Bryant at [email protected]
Race fans unable to make their way to Pensacola, Florida during Snowball Derby week will be able to watch all of the racing action live on Speed51.com. Four-day video tickets are now available at a savings of $20. Visit Speed51.com today for more information.
-By Aaron Creed, Speed51.com Central NY & PA Editor – Twitter: @aaron_creed
-Photo credit: Speed51.com