PENSACOLA, Fla. – On a day where it appeared Derek Thorn was destined to win the Snowball Derby, Chandler Smith had other ideas.
Smith used his front bumper to pass Thorn for the race lead after a restart on lap 287 and pulled away to victory in the 54th running of the Snowball Derby Sunday afternoon at Five Flags Speedway.
“Like I said before the race, God’s timing is everything,” Smith said after emerging from his Donnie Wilson Motorsports car in victory lane Sunday afternoon.
For most of the 300-lap event, it appeared Sunday’s Snowball Derby was going to belong to Thorn. Starting from the pole, Thorn took command of the race at the outset and was rarely challenged.
Smith, on the other hand, had his work cut out for him. After starting second and chasing Thorn in the early laps, Smith was forced to make an unscheduled pit stop during a caution period due to debris on the front grill of his car causing overheating issues.
That dropped Smith to the back of the field and forced him to race his way back up through the pack. By the time a mandatory caution flag waved with 107 laps left, Smith had made his way back up to third.
During the restart that followed, Smith was able to drive past NASCAR Cup Series regular Ryan Preece to take reclaim second. However, he still had to contend with Thorn, who continued to lead as Smith gave chase.
The final mandatory caution flag, which waved after 75 consecutive green flag laps were completed, came on lap 278. After Thorn and Smith both visited pit road for service, they lined up side-by-side on the front row for the final restart on lap 287.
Thorn got the better jump on the inside and was able to pull clear of Smith as they exited turn two down the backstretch. Smith, however, was not going to let Thorn get away and drove deep into turn three and made contact with Thorn’s back bumper.
The contact moved Thorn up and out of the groove, allowing Smith to take the race lead. Thorn was able to keep his car out of the wall, but he suddenly found himself in a three-wide battle with Preece and Cole Butcher for the runner-up position.
With Thorn occupied with Preece and Butcher, Smith quickly built a gap between himself and the battle for second. After a few laps of fighting, Thorn eventually emerged in second, but by then Smith was long gone and flashed under the checkered flag to win his first Snowball Derby.
“I knew we did not have the speed that the 43 (Thorn) had, so I knew it all came down to that restart,” Smith said. “I had to take my shot. It’s the Derby at the end of the day.
“We’re racing for the Derby, you know what I mean?”
Thorn, who set a record for the most laps led in the Snowball Derby at 287, was not impressed with Smith’s driving during the final restart.
“I guess I’ll ask the fans, was that a clean pass?” Thorn asked the assembled crowed who responded with a chorus of boos. “They do the talking for me.
“I don’t know what he was thinking, but he won the Snowball Derby and we didn’t.”
Butcher finished third, with Preece taking fourth at the finish ahead of Sammy Smith.
Rich Bickle Jr., making the final start of his legendary career, was involved in the only major crash of the day on lap 27 when multiple cars piled in to turn one during a restart. He was scored 31st at the checkered flag.
Chandler Smith, Derek Thorn, Cole Butcher, Ryan Preece, Sammy Smith, Hunter Robbins, Carson Hocevar, Stephen Nasse, Corey Heim, Erik Jones, Ty Majeski, Casey Johnson, Bubba Pollard, Brandon Watson, Casey Roderick, Jace Hansen, Derek Griffith, Jake Finch, Grant Enfinger, Derek Kraus, Kodie Conner, Luke Fenhaus, Kaden Honeycutt, Jeff Storm, Mason Diaz, Matt Craig, Jeremy Doss, Preston Peltier, Jake Garcia, Rich Bickle Jr., Daniel Dye, Mike Garvey, Jesse Love, Jett Noland, Jeff Choquette, Kyle Plott.