PENSACOLA, Fla. — The buzz word surrounding Noah Gragson’s late entry into the 53rd Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway is “fun.”
More specifically, it’s a desire to have a lot of fun during the week leading up to the $25,000-to-win super late model event at the historic half-mile oval.
Gragson is returning to the Super Bowl of Late Model Racing for the first time since he took home the Tom Dawson Trophy in 2018. That year, the Las Vegas native drove for Kyle Busch Motorsports.
This time around, Gragson is wheeling a Phoenix Construction-sponsored No. 51 for Wauters Motorsports, owned by veteran NASCAR Camping World Truck Series crew chief Richie Wauters.
It’s a different situation and a different mindset for Gragson, whose day job is driving for JR Motorsports in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. He’s more relaxed than, perhaps, he’s ever been.
“First off, it feels really good to be back here at Five Flags Speedway,” Gragson told SPEED SPORT during technical inspection on Wednesday. “I feel like there’s a lot less pressure for me leading into this one; the first one’s always the hardest to win, as they say. It took me four tries to do that, as well as a couple of other trips down here during the regular season, before I figured this race out and was finally able to get it. But we’ve got one and they can’t take that away from us, so now we’re here going for two.
“I’m just excited to be here,” he continued. “Really, I don’t think there’s as much pressure this time and I don’t know if I’m more relaxed or I’m more mature or what it is … but I feel like it’s going to be a fun week and I’m definitely not as stressed out going into it. I know what I need to do. I know what I want the car to feel like. I’m excited and just grateful for the opportunity I have here with James Finch and Billy Ballew and everybody over here at Wauters Motorsports to chase that Tom Dawson Trophy again.”
Surprisingly, Gragson’s appearance this week marks the first time he’s entered a super late model event of any kind since his lone Snowball Derby victory two years ago.
“People may not realize it, but I haven’t driven a super late model since the last time I was here at the Snowball Derby, when we won with KBM,” noted Gragson. “It’s great to be running with Richie Wauters and this Phoenix Construction team this week; it’s like a big reunion, really. I drove with them a while back before I went to KBM and it’s always enjoyable to work with these guys. The car looks really good.
“We honestly made our minds up this past Saturday that we were going to do this, so I guess a week and a day before the race is when it was decided for us,” he added. “We weren’t sure … we were kind of talking about it, but it wasn’t really looking like it was going to happen. Thankfully, we had a lot of partners step up, between Phoenix Construction, Billy Ballew … (past NASCAR Cup Series champion) Kurt Busch stepped up and he’s helping us out, so it has just been a lot of people that came together to help this team out.
“I’ll take it, though. I’m just happy to be here.”
Prior to his Snowball Derby victory in 2018, Gragson didn’t necessarily have a hallmark victory on his racing résumé. In his eyes, winning the most prestigious race in super late model racing changed that.
“I never really realized the history of the Derby until I finally won it, and then went back and looked and saw the names on the side of the Tom Dawson Trophy,” Gragson explained. “There were 51 years (of history) on there when we won in 2018, and it was like, ‘Damn, those are some big names on that trophy.’ To be a part of that group … and even just to be in the race is special.
“There are a lot of big-name guys who have been here, even Dale Earnhardt was here and he never won it, so to be one of the winners of this race is definitely humbling,” he continued. “It’s really special to me to be a winner of the Snowball Derby and it’s by far the biggest race of my career in any racing series.”
Gragson knows that the first task ahead of him is qualifying for the 300-lap race. That happens Friday, when the top 30 on time will secure their places into the big show. For everyone else, a last chance race happens Saturday afternoon and gives four more drivers a spot into the dance.
As long as he makes it into the field, Gragson believes he’ll have a shot to win, but admitted that there will be a lot of variables involved Sunday that will increase the difficulty of taking home another Derby win.
“I’m super comfortable in the Xfinity style cars, the heavier cars, but these (super late models) are a lot lighter and a lot faster,” Gragson said. “I don’t really know what to expect, but I know I have the team and the car and the tools necessary to go out there and contend for a second Tom Dawson Trophy.
“A lot of things change over 300 laps here. You have to race the track as much as anything, so we’ll stay on top of it as best we can and hope to be in position to capitalize near the end Sunday afternoon.”