PENSACOLA, Fla. – In his final race as a driver for Kyle Busch Motorsports, Noah Gragson took the team back to the pinnacle of super late model racing on Sunday night.
Gragson topped the 51st annual Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway following a thrilling late-race restart, which saw him power past Harrison Burton and lead the final six laps en route to victory in the crown jewel event.
The win was Kyle Busch Motorsports’ fourth Snowball Derby triumph overall and second in a row. Team owner Kyle Busch won the 50th running of the event last year.
After taking the checkered flag, Gragson engaged in a smoke show for the ages, burning the tires off his No. 18 Switch/Mobil 1 Toyota before climbing the fence and screaming in jubilation to the fans.
“We won the Snowball Derby, baby!” Gragson exclaimed.
The 20-year-old Las Vegas native pitted for fresh tires when Kyle Bryant spun to bring out a yellow flag with 22 laps left in the 300-lap marathon. Fresh rubber ultimately proved to be the difference-maker.
“With [Burton] having such old tires, I already ruled him out,” Gragson said. “I knew he was going to be fifth or sixth or whatever it was going to be in four or five laps. I knew it was between me, Jeff Choquette and Ty Majeski.
“This is huge for me, myself, my team,” Gragson added. “My pit crew members, they did a hell of a job on pit road. We gained spots all night long. That last stop was the money stop. I felt like it gave us the opportunity to give us that track position.”
The race, which was originally scheduled to start at 2 p.m. CT, was pushed back nearly 90 minutes due to a combination of a wreck-filled last chance race and persistent weepers on the frontstretch, ultimately leading to a nighttime finish for just the second time in history.
Burton started from the pole and led 88 of the first 92 laps virtually uncontested, but a sequence of rough pit stops during the middle stages of the race set Burton back and forced him into an alternate strategy compared to most of the leaders.
Burton made his final stop for fresh tires inside of 80 laps to go, banking on a long run to the finish that he nearly got. He restarted ninth on lap 225 and took just 25 laps to pick his way back into the top three.
From there, Burton dispatched Raphael Lessard for second with 39 to go before setting his sights on Majeski for the race lead, which he stole with 27 laps left after charging from three seconds back.
However, Bryant’s spin changed everything, drawing the rest of the lead-lap cars down pit road and forcing Burton – who had no sticker tires remaining in his pit stall – to stay out on 60-lap tires and hope.
Burton was saved by a quick caution on the first of two restarts with 14 to go, but he simply couldn’t hold Gragson and the rest of his foes at bay when the green flag waved for the final time for a six-lap shootout.
Gragson beat Burton to turn one as the latter faded out of contention, while Majeski forged ahead from sixth to second with a huge run on the inside lane behind Gragson.
Though Majeski closed the gap in the final moments, he was forced to settle for second.
“I was giving it all I had there,” Majeski said. “I think if we’d had one … or maybe two more laps, then the outcome might have been a little bit different. Congrats to Noah and everyone at KBM, though; they did a great job.
“I feel like we had them beat tonight,” added Majeski, who led 65 of the final 100 laps. “I feel like we had the field covered. It’s just unfortunate that we couldn’t finish it off and stand over in victory lane.”
Choquette completed the podium, followed by Connor Okrzesik and Casey Roderick.
Chandler Smith, Donnie Wilson, Tyler Ankrum and Cole Butcher were sixth through ninth, respectively, with Burton fading back to the final position among the top 10.
Eleven of the 36 starters were running on the lead lap at the finish. The race took two hours, 22 minutes and five seconds to complete, for an average race pace of 63.342 mph.
Afterwards, Gragson noted that winning his farewell race for KBM was, “The only acceptable outcome.”
“I knew coming in how bad I wanted to win this for my guys, for everyone at KBM,” Gragson said. “Kyle was my idol growing up, the guy I collected die-cast cars of. I’ve just been moving my way up the ranks from Bandoleros to Legend cars, to the K&N (Pro) Series and then to the Truck Series. I thought I had skipped a step in the super late models, and I thought it hurt my development.
“It means a lot to win one more for Kyle Busch Motorsports,” Gragson added. “It’s my last race with them after two years and it’s a surreal feeling to get the job done like this.”
Noah Gragson, Ty Majeski, Jeff Choquette, Connor Okrzesik, Casey Roderick, Chandler Smith, Donnie Wilson, Tyler Ankrum, Cole Butcher, Harrison Burton, Jeremy Doss, Derek Thorn, John DeAngelis, Chase Purdy, Jesse Dutilly, Derek Kraus, Jack Dossey III, Kyle Plott, Spencer Davis, Logan Boyett, Paul Shafer Jr., Derek Griffith, Dennis Prunty, Kyle Bryant, Raphael Lessard, Bubba Pollard, Stephen Nasse, Michael Atwell, Corey Heim, Kaden Honeycutt, Chris Davidson, Preston Peltier, Perry Patino, Stewart Friesen, Carson Hocevar, Austin Nason.