PENSACOLA, Fla. – Race fans at Five Flags Speedway saw reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Chase Elliott prove his mettle Saturday evening during the last chance qualifier for the 53rd Snowball Derby.
Elliott charged from 11th to the lead in 28 laps and then pulled away down the stretch at the historic half-mile oval to win the 50-lap affair and secure one of four available transfer spots into the big show.
His Phoenix Construction-sponsored No. 9 maintained solid pace throughout the LCQ, giving Elliott confidence that he’ll be able to contend Sunday despite rolling off 31st for the Snowball Derby.
“Fortunately, we had really good pace there,” said Elliott, a two-time Snowball Derby winner. “It was a really clean race, too, which was also good to see. I was a little concerned about that going in. I appreciate the effort from all of these guys. We were a little bit better this morning in practice, but I think we can make it better still going into tomorrow.
“I’m thankful to make it through. It wasn’t the Saturday we wanted to have, but at the same time, I haven’t raced (a super late model) in a while and to look on the bright side, we got some laps in race conditions,” Elliott continued. “I’m looking forward to tomorrow and excited for another Snowball Derby.”
Traditionally a race that sees a fair amount of carnage break out, Saturday’s Derby LCQ went green to checker in 14 minutes, 40 seconds without a single caution flag.
Polesitter Augie Grill jumped out to the early lead and paced the first 27 laps before Elliott took control.
From there, the proprietor of Grand American Race Cars hung on comfortably to a runner-up finish, with New England’s Derek Griffith crossing third and also earning a place in the Snowball Derby field.
Chandler Smith steamrolled from last in the 21-car field – after a Friday-night time trial disqualification – to claim the fourth and final transfer spot Saturday with his Wilson Motorsports-prepared No. 26.
“That was stressful. It definitely came down to the pin right at the very end, but the Good Lord helped me navigate through the traffic and I think we made a pretty good statement,” Smith noted. “We have a really good hot rod for tomorrow. In practice I was beating myself up pretty good, but we got back to work, went back to our notes from Thursday and here we are with a starting spot in the Snowball Derby.
“I think a lot of people fell off (through the long run); I didn’t really fall off,” he added. “I think we have a really good longevity car. When I kept getting closer, though … I felt like this track had a lot of air to it out there. When I got up to about two car lengths behind Noah (Gragson), I lost all of my drive. … But once I got some clean air, he wiggled off of turn one and that seemed to be where it ended.”
Though four of the biggest names in short-track racing made the show, several heavy hitters missed the cut, led by Kyle Busch Motorsports driver Sammy Smith and NASCAR Xfinity Series star Noah Gragson.
Sammy Smith and Gragson finished fifth and sixth, respectively, in Saturday’s LCQ.
Former Derby starter Carson Hocevar, PRA Super Late Model Tour champion Kodie Conner, Gulf Coast ace Connor Okrzesik and NASCAR Drive for Diversity class member Perry Patino were also among the list of last chance qualifier competitors who saw their Snowball Derby hopes come to an early end.
With preliminary action complete, the focus for the four transfer drivers turns to 300 laps on Sunday.
Elliott showed flashes of brilliance on Saturday, but whether or not he win a third Snowball Derby remains to be seen, and the Dawsonville, Ga., native is well aware of that.
“I hope this is a good sign,” Elliott said. “Obviously, it’s really hard to tell. It’s cool and dark right now, and this was a bit later start than what we’ll have tomorrow … but overall, I was pleased with our balance.
“The main thing tomorrow will be to stay on the lead lap and stay out of trouble. If we execute properly, I think (winning) is very much achievable and I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
Sunday’s Snowball Derby will take the green flag at 1 p.m. CT, moved up an hour from its originally-scheduled start time due to the threat of mid-afternoon showers in the Pensacola area.
1. Chase Elliott, 2. Augie Grill, 3. Derek Griffith, 4. Chandler Smith / 5. Sammy Smith, 6. Noah Gragson, 7. Hudson Halder, 8. Carson Hocevar, 9. Kodie Conner, 10. Austin Nason, 11. Connor Okrzesik, 12. Kason Plott, 13. Justin Johnson, 14. Kyle McCallum, 15. Gabe Sommers, 16. Kyle Bryant, 17. Dalton Zehr, 18. Casey Johnson, 19. Ryan Crane, 20. Colton Nelson, 21. Perry Patino.