PENSACOLA, Fla. – While four drivers experienced the jubilation of racing their ways into the 53rd Snowball Derby on Saturday afternoon, several other big names were left heartbroken and dejected.
A 50-lap last chance qualifier packed to the gills with talent meant that, inevitably, multiple stars were destined to pack their things and head home from Five Flags Speedway early.
That list was led by Kyle Busch Motorsports young gun Sammy Smith, who crossed the line fifth at the end of 50 laps Saturday and fell eight tenths of a second short of making the Snowball Derby field.
Ironically, Smith was edged out for the final transfer spot into the show by former KBM driver Chandler Smith.
The dejection was evident in Sammy Smith’s demeanor when he spoke to SPEED SPORT moments after the finish.
“We were just way too loose, really the whole race,” said Sammy Smith. “I tried to do stuff with my brake fans and my brake bias, but it just wasn’t enough.”
Asked if it was any consolation to finish fifth in the caliber of field that this year’s Derby produced, the Iowa teenager emphatically shook his head.
“It just means we have to be better and we weren’t good enough this year,” Sammy Smith noted. “We’ll move on to the next one and hopefully go out and make the race next year.”
NASCAR Xfinity Series star Noah Gragson was another of the notable stars to miss the cut in the LCQ.
His last-minute effort with Wauters Motorsports came close to sneaking into the Derby field, but Gragson was passed by Chandler Smith for the final transfer spot inside 10 to go and couldn’t rally back.
“Ever since we unloaded, we just never really got a handle on this thing,” said Gragson of his race car. “I was starting to become a lot more confident in the car and in our pace during practice today, and it felt like we had a pretty good car. It was just super finicky and seemed like it only reacted to changes negatively. But I’m very thankful for the opportunity I had this week with Richie Wauters’ group and James Finch. The Phoenix Construction team worked their guts out this week.
“We may have missed the show, but it wasn’t from a lack of effort,” Gragson added. “These guys worked their tails off and I’m proud of all their hard work. We tried our asses off, but this one just wasn’t meant to be. It definitely stinks right now, that’s for sure.”
When Gragson moved past Austin Nason for fourth after halfway, he believed he might have a shot to hang on to a transfer spot, but that belief just didn’t hold out.
“I felt like we were pacing better than those guys,” Gragson admitted. “We were sideways off the corner, I was driving off low and straight … and then things just changed so drastically balance-wise throughout the run that we just couldn’t figure it out.
“We need to close that window up; this was a new chassis for Richie Wauters, but I couldn’t figure it out, so that’s not good,” continued Gragson. “There was just something funky in this thing that didn’t really work this week.”
Other drivers who failed to advance to the Snowball Derby through the last chance qualifier included CRA Triple Crown winner Carson Hocevar in eighth, PRA Super Late Model Tour champion Kodie Conner in ninth, Gulf Coast ace Connor Okrzesik in 11th and ARCA Midwest Tour titlist Casey Johnson in 18th.
Despite the disappointment of missing out on the Snowball Derby this year, Gragson wants to be back.
He doesn’t want this memory to be the last one he makes at Five Flags Speedway.
“We’ll see,” said Gragson after being asked if he’d come back next year. “I hope so.”