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56th Snowball Derby: Late wreck opens door Ty Majeski to claim second Snowball Derby title

Each Snowball Derby tells its own story. The biggest race in America delivers new, edge-of-your-seat action every first Sunday in December that leaves the Five Flags Speedway faithful eager to turn the page to the next chapter.

The hero of the 56th annual Snowball Derby on Sunday at the famed half-mile asphalt oval was Wisconsin wunderkind Ty Majeski. It is the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series driver’s second Derby victory in the last four years.

Ty Majeski celebrates after winning the 56th Annual Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway Sunday, December 3, 2023.
Ty Majeski celebrates after winning the 56th Annual Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway Sunday, December 3, 2023.

“I’m living my dream driving racecars,” said Majeski, who became the 12th driver to hoist multiple Tom Dawson trophies. “This one is just as special as the first.”

The 29-year-old led 29 of the 300-lap Super Late Model race, including the most important final six. Bitter rivals Stephen Nasse and Bubba Pollard wrecked on Lap 294, ferociously fighting for the lead in front of Majeski. Nasse, who led a race-high 139 laps, and Pollard were both denied their first Derby titles.

“Anything can happen at the Derby,” Majeski said.

Gio Ruggiero, 19, finished runner-up and 2019 Derby winner Travis Braden rounded out the podium. Cole Butcher finished fourth to post his fourth top-five Derby finish in seven career starts. Matt Craig’s fifth-place finish was his first Derby top-five in five attempts.

NASCAR Cup Series drivers William Byron—a six-time Cup winner this season—and Erik Jones—a two-time past Derby winner—had their contending runs spoiled on Lap 282. Fellow Cup driver Noah Gragson caused a major pileup that collected nearly half of the 36-car field on a restart when he failed to get up to speed.

A huge pile-up of cars near the end of the 56th Annual Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway Sunday, December 3, 2023.
A huge pile-up of cars near the end of the 56th Annual Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway Sunday, December 3, 2023.

“Noah missed a shift, and I got into him,” said 2022 Derby champion Derek Thorn, who finished 26th. “Unfortunately, there’s a lotta wrecked racecars. This wasn’t the way we wanted it to end, but that’s racing.”

Thorn’s title defense began well Sunday. He started from the pole for a fourth time—a Derby feat that matches only Pensacola’s Eddie Mercer—and led the opening 78 laps. But unlike Mercer’s historic victory in 2005, Thorn became the 18th straight driver to fail in their attempt to win from the pole.

He yielded the lead to Pollard, which prompted a glorious “Let’s go, Bubba!” roar from his legions of fans among the standing-room-only crowd at Pensacola’s high banks.

A Bubba Pollard fan shows her support during the 56th Annual Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway Sunday, December 3, 2023.
A Bubba Pollard fan shows her support during the 56th Annual Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway Sunday, December 3, 2023.

Pollard had one of his finest machines in recent Derby editions, leading 54 laps and looking for more on the late restart following Gragson’s wreck. He watched Nasse and Majeski battle door-to-door for the lead for nearly 10 laps.

“My only option was to race (Nasse) on the outside or I would’ve been a sitting duck,” Majeski said.

When Nasse cleared on Lap 291, Pollard saw his opportunity and darted to second under Majeski. Pollard stayed glued to Nasse’s bumper for several laps until they took each other out on Lap 294.

Pollard inched up Nasse’s left rear quarter panel and toward his nose as they crossed underneath the flag stand. Nasse dove into Turn No. 1 defending his lead. Pollard was pinched and scraped the inside wall while Nasse attempted to save his spinning No. 51. They both careened into the outside wall to bring out the seventh and final caution.

“I don’t know if I could’ve beat Stephen or Bubba straight up, but those things happen at the Snowball Derby,” Majeski said. “I thought the race came down to our long runs. The short runs were our Achilles heel.”

Nasse returned and finished sixth, the last car on the lead lap, while Pollard sustained more Derby heartbreak with a totaled racecar and a 19th-place finish. Late Model’s most decorated driver remains winless in 16 tries at short-track racing’s crown gem.

Racers make their way around the track during the 56th Annual Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway Sunday, December 3, 2023.
Racers make their way around the track during the 56th Annual Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway Sunday, December 3, 2023.

Ruggiero had a typical Sunday ride at the Derby. After barely getting into the race with a poor qualifying lap, the Massachusetts youngster experienced more troubles before the green flag dropped. He couldn’t fire off and required a push off the starting grid. Ruggiero came to the pits and returned to the tail end as the race got underway.

“I’m not a quitter and there’s never any give-up in this team,” he said. “Everybody works so hard. We went from dead last to second and had a shot at it. We were just a little tight in the end.”

Braden was emotional afterward. The West Virginia native put racing on the backburner the last few years while he supported his girlfriend’s fight against breast cancer.

“I had tears in my eyes coming to the green,” Braden said, again choking back tears. “I learned a lot (Sunday) after being out of the seat for three years. By the first 100 laps, I truly felt comfortable.”

Feeling comfortable rarely happens at the Derby until the checkered flag flies. And, even then, it is just one driver who can enjoy the spoils of a title.

This Sunday, that was Majeski. He kissed the plastic snowball atop the Tom Dawson Trophy and posed for Victory Lane photographs to celebrate win No. 2.

Another Snowball Derby story. They never disappoint.

This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Five Flags Speedway: Ty Majeski wins the 56th Snowball Derby in Pensacola