PENSACOLA, Fla. — Texas teenager Kaden Honeycutt will have a fallen friend riding shotgun aboard his No. 2 Wilson Motorsports super late model this week at Five Flags Speedway.
Honeycutt will carry Jackson Bates’ name above the passenger’s side window of his Toyota Camry as he pursues his third straight start in the Super Bowl of Late Model Racing.
Bates, 12, was introduced to Honeycutt through the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, a non-profit which works to improve the quality of life for children battling pediatric brain tumors or other types of childhood cancers.
The two became fast friends, despite restrictions that prevented several planned visits during the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bates lost his battle with cancer on Oct. 26 and Honeycutt told SPEED SPORT Thursday that “it was a no-brainer” when it came to honoring his friend’s memory during Snowball Derby week.
“I’d been (paired) with him since February and when COVID hit, it did kind of take some restrictions away from being able to see him,” Honeycutt said of Bates. “But I feel like I made the most of the time I had with him and I saw him and his family the last couple of months before it was time for him to be called home. I just wanted to support him and show his family that I loved him very much; we all did.
“Knowing that he’s still here with us this weekend is important to me, so hopefully we represent him well and can have a strong showing with FOJ on board,” Honeycutt added. “He was a part of that (FOJ) family as well and we want to give the best effort we have here for him and everybody else that has been a part of it.”
Almost fittingly, Honeycutt’s pill draw for qualifying on Wednesday night was No. 26.
“I kind of had a funny feeling yesterday. We drew the No. 26 and Jackson actually passed away on Oct. 26, so that was kind of a weird coincidence. Hopefully, it’s a good omen for us for Friday night,” he said.
Honeycutt ran a pair of Southern Super Series races at Five Flags Speedway earlier this season after joining Wilson Motorsports.
The results were impressive. He finished second in the first event and ran third in the return trip. That kind of consistency has Honeycutt believing the Tom Dawson Trophy could be within reach.
“Our first race (together) where we ran second, we won our heat race and probably had one of the best cars over there that day,” Honeycutt noted. “We were first in practice, first … all day really. And I just got involved with a lap car in the last couple laps, which stunk because I was really waiting for Bubba (Pollard) to catch me so I could take back off, but that little incident put a halt to that. We still ended up second, though, which was really good for us.
“We had some things go wrong in October. I think we had a broken left front spring that ended up going out on us pretty early in the race; we had some toe issues on the front end, so there was some stuff in the last race that went wrong, but we still managed a third (place finish), even with a messed-up race car,” he continued. “So we have a lot of confidence coming into this weekend. We tested on Monday and we had really good speed in qualifying trim and in race runs. So we’re just trying to find the edges. That’s what everybody’s trying to do.
“I’m feeling very strong about our team. We’re all about confidence and we’re going to make it happen.”
In Honeycutt’s first two Derby starts he was driving for his family-owned late model operation. This week’s event marks the first time he’s entered the super late model crown jewel with a premier team.
While some might think driving for a team that has contended for victories regularly at events like the Snowball Derby would add pressure to a young driver, Honeycutt feels relaxed going into the remainder of the weekend.
“The first year we came, we just wanted to make the race,” the 17-year-old recalled. “We ended up doing that and then we didn’t have a very good outing because we wrecked out of that race. The next year we just improved it together as a team. We qualified 16th last year and ran just about inside the top 10 the whole day. We just had a ring and pinion go bad in the rear end. But that accomplished our goal of running up in the middle or toward the front of the pack.
“This year we really wanted to do well. We’d been struggling to run well; we just were running mediocre and I didn’t want to run mediocre anymore,” Honeycutt noted. “I wanted to go and win races, and with this team, we have that opportunity. I really feel confident in our race team and everybody has confidence in me, so we’re going to make it happen and we won’t let anybody down.”
As for the name riding above his passenger window?
“We’re going to make Jackson proud,” said Honeycutt. “He’d be proud regardless, but we want to really do well this weekend in his honor. That’s a goal that I genuinely want to achieve this weekend.”