Snowball Derby a massive opportunity for young racers

Most race fans have head Kyle Busch tell the tale of how NASCAR’s latest wunderkind Erik Jones was discovered.

Snowball Derby a massive opportunity for young racers
Late model being prepared
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion owner Kyle Busch with Erik Jones
Joe Nemechek tours his shop
Championship victory lane: NASCAR Camping World Truck Series 2015 champion Erik Jones, Kyle Busch Motorsports celebrates with team owner Kyle Busch
Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Chase Elliott, JR Motorsports Chevrolet
John Hunter Nemechek
Race winner Christopher Bell, Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota
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Busch, who won the 2009 Snowball Derby, arrived at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Fla., expecting another Tom Dawson trophy for his case. 

But a then unknown 16-year-old racer from Byron, Michigan had a different plan.

Jones led 123 of the 300-lap race and bested the Sprint Cup driver in his debut on the half-mile asphalt track. He left with the hardware — and inevitably a job with Kyle Busch Motorsports that led him to the 2015 Camping World Championship. 

A prestigious event

Since 1968, the Snowball Derby has evolved into one the most prestigious Super Late Model races in the country. Recently, it’s become a proving ground for aspiring NASCAR drivers looking to make an impression.

“I think it’s become a way bigger event over the last 15 years than maybe what it was years ago,” Busch said. “I’m not sure why, it’s always had a good car count, I think probably because of the notoriety, the attention it gets now. There’s a lot of different kids that have come from that race, competed in that race and that have won that race and have moved on to bigger and better things later on.

“I think it’s a really good opportunity for drivers — and younger drivers — to be able to achieve success in that race and to be able to move on and achieve success in their careers. But it’s also a race in which you can do something bad or wrong and people will notice that, too, and you won’t ever get a shot after that.”

Donnie Allison and Darrell Waltrip won the prestigious race in the 1970s. Former trucker Rich Bickle holds the Snowball record of five victories — all during the 1990s. Tammy Jo Kirk (1994) became the first female victor — and local favorite Johanna Long won the race in 2010. The following year, Chase Elliott became the youngest winner in the event while Jones made it consecutive Sweet 16 winners in 2012 and successfully defended his title the next year. 

Nemechek looking to defend 2014 title

John Hunter Nemechek, who earned the Most Popular Driver Award in the Camping World Truck Series and finished 12th in the standings despite running just 18 of the 23 races, collected his first Tom Dawson trophy last December and looks to defend his win on Sunday. For Nemechek, it will be a challenge after he was disqualified following inspection. He will start 37th. 

Christopher Bell, 20, another Busch protege, won the pole for the Snowball Derby with a record-breaking lap of 13.027-seconds. However, he too was disqualified on Friday. Although Nemechek will receive the past champion’s provisional, Bell will have to race his way into the event in the last chance qualifying race on Saturday with a finish of fourth or higher.

“We always have a top-five car going down there,” Busch said of KBM’s equipment. “Every year, we’ve been there. Some years, we’ve had winning cars. Other years we’ve just been top five. But I expect him to run top five. 

“There’s been some years when guys are just hooked up, checked up, gone. It goes back and forth with some guys. They just get hooked up on that particular weekend or that particular day. But we’re usually right there in the top five — and I would expect that this weekend with Chris.”t

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Crew members injured as Nemechek's Snowball Derby ends in flames

Crew members injured as Nemechek's Snowball Derby ends in flames