After being sent to the rear of the field when race officials ruled his contact with another competitor in a lap-158 accident of the 45th annual Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Fla. was "beyond normal racing," Kyle Busch mounted a rally and had his No. 51 Monster Energy Camry at the front of the field for the final restart. Busch battled side-by-side for nearly 20 laps with eventual race winner Erik Jones before settling into the second spot with five laps remaining. By the time the field took the checkered flag, he surrendered one more position, leaving the Monster Energy Camry with a third-place finish.
"We were able to get out front for the last restart and I thought that would give us the advantage, but Erik drove a great race and got back by us," said Busch, the 2009 winner of the prestigious event. "My guys gave me a great piece -- I hate it that we didn't have enough. I have to thank Monster Energy for coming onboard for this race and everything they've done for me in my first year as a Monster Athlete. Also have to thank our other sponsors we had this weekend, Choice Hotels and REI (Recycling Equipment Inc.)."
Busch, who started the 300-lap event from the fourth position, had worked his way into the runner-up spot by the time the first caution of the day slowed the field on lap 48. On the ensuing restart, he was able to work his way around John Hunter Nemechek for the lead, which he maintained for four laps before settling back in the second position.
When the next caution occurred on lap 114, the Monster Energy Camry had fallen back to the third spot. Busch brought his No. 51 Toyota to the over-the-wall crew for four fresh tires and a chassis adjustment. As cars exited pit road, the Kyle Busch Motorsports (KBM) crew had gained their owner one position, but with two competitors electing not to pit, the team was scored in the fourth position when cars lined up for the restart on lap 128.
The Las Vegas native was able to maneuver his way into the runner-up spot on lap 130 and began to reel in race-leader T.J. Reaid. A one-car spin on lap 151 brought out a caution and bunched the field. Shortly after the ensuing restart, Busch closed to Reaid's bumper and challenged him for the lead. As the Monster Energy Camry charged hard into the corner in an effort to drive to the inside of Reaid's car, the two cars made contact and Reaid spun, collecting a few other cars in the process. Under caution, race officials deemed that the contact from Busch was "beyond normal racing" and he was sent to the back of the field for the restart on lap 163.
"I blame myself for giving them the opportunity to make that call," explained Busch post race. "We were hard racing and I was on the outside of, I think, the No. 99 car (Casey Smith). I stepped on the gas with the edge to the corner -- T.J. didn't go right away and I hit him. I tried to check up and get off him, but he lost it and stacked up a lot of good cars -- I hated it for those guys."
When the race resumed, Busch began to slowly but surely make his way back through the field. The Monster Energy Camry was scored in the 13th position for a lap-213 restart and five laps later was back inside the top 10. By the time the next caution occurred on lap 227, KBM's owner-driver had advanced into the fifth position.
After the race went back green, Busch made his way into the fourth position on lap 259 and had moved into third shortly before the final caution of the race occurred on lap 275. Crew chief Chris Gabehart summoned his driver down pit road, where the over-the-wall crew put on the team's final set of sticker tires and returned their No. 51 Toyota to the track at the front of the field.
On the final restart, Busch was able to open up a two-car length lead on Jones, but the youngster quickly closed the door. With Busch on the inside lane and Jones on the outside, the two battled door-to-door for nearly 20 laps before Jones was able to clear the Monster Energy Camry. With five laps remaining, the veteran driver made one more attempt to dive to the inside of the up-and-comer, but was unable to complete the pass and had used up his equipment. By the time Jones crossed the stripe, Jeff Choquette was able to work his way around Busch, leaving the Monster Energy Camry with a third-place finish.
"You have to give Erik a lot of credit -- Kyle put a lot of pressure on him and we figured at some point he would make a mistake, but he never did," said Bond Suss, Program Manager for KBM's Late Model team. "They both drove their tails off those last 25 laps and put on a great show for all the fans. Our car was just a little tight in the center and free off all week, and we never really seemed to be able to fix it. It got really tight that last run, but Kyle gave it all he had and we came up just a little bit short."
Jones, who was making his first career Snowball Derby start, became the third consecutive teenager to win the prestigious race, following Johanna Long (2010) and Chase Elliott (2011). Choquette finished second, followed by Busch in third. Jeff Fultz and Elliott rounded out the top-five finishers.
Seven different drivers led, exchanging the lead 12 times, including Busch who led three times for 15 laps. Six drivers failed to finish the 300-lap race.