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2023 Snowball Derby delivers drama, a near-Dale Earnhardt moment, glory for Ty Majeski

For a real moment, it looked as if one of the greatest drivers in short-track racing history might actually do it this time — that he might win the prestigious event that has eluded him for nearly two decades at a place he’s long-considered home.

But no Dale Earnhardt-winning-the-Daytona-500 moment came on Sunday evening at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida. Bubba Pollard will have to wait another year for that.

Instead, the 2023 Snowball Derby belonged to Ty Majeski, who won his second title.

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.

“They all have their own little feel to them,” Majeski told reporters just outside the tech shed, a few moments before it was announced his car had cleared post-race inspection. “This one feels just as special as the last one.”

He added: “Just really, truly, living the dream right now.”

Majeski, who drives for ThorSport Racing in the NASCAR Truck Series, won his first Snowball Derby title in 2020. He’s now one of just 12 drivers to score multiple Derby victories in its 56-year history — a history so special that the race has earned the moniker “Super Bowl of short-track racing.”

“Happened to be at the right place at the right time,” Majeski said. “I’ve lost a couple Snowballs that way. But this year was my year.”

Gio Ruggiero finished second. Travis Braden finished third.

For as much as this race was about Majeski and his conquering of Five Flags Speedway, it was also about the drivers who came so close but didn’t. Majeski, Pollard and Stephen Nasse — three of the best short-track drivers in the country — were the ones who were battling it out in the race’s thrilling, heartbreaking, glorious end.

The race will be remembered for what happened right near the end. Nasse had the lead. Pollard and Majeski were right behind him. Right before Turn 1, with eight laps to go, Pollard got on the inside of Nasse, who then crowded Pollard into the wall and prompted contact that eventually sent the two greats’ cars and their contending chances spiraling into oblivion.

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.

Both drivers had similar recollections of what happened.

“I did crowd Bubba a little bit there, but he was kind of lifting me up down there,” Nasse said. “He knew what he was doing, and I knew what I was doing. We were racing hard. I think if I’d really done him wrong, he’d be way more upset and have a few words with me by now.

“But it was just hard racing. It’s unfortunate. I hate it for the both of us. We’ve both been trying to get this win for some time now.”

Said Pollard: “It is what it is. I haven’t seen a replay or nothing, but I feel like he chopped me off pretty good. It knocked the wheel out of my hand he hit me so hard. ... Ain’t nothing else for me to say.”

Nasse and Pollard, in many ways, have a rivalry by proximity. They’re good, and they’ve been good for a long time, so they have a history of entangling with one another. It wasn’t all that long ago when Nasse threw two middle fingers at Pollard in Cordele, Ga., for the whole racetrack to see.

But that animosity didn’t spill over into fists on Sunday evening.

The reason?

Anything goes for the Snowball Derby.

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.

“I was telling myself in the long red flag,” Nasse said, “that it was going to either be me wrecked, or me winning.”

The race delivered drama. It had a 15-car pileup that collected a whole bunch of the NASCAR Cup Series names, including Noah Gragson and Erik Jones and William Byron. It truly had everything.

Including heartbreak.

Pollard certainly felt that.

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.

The all-time great — the sure-fire Hall of Famer who has drawn the jealousy of Kyle Busch and the attention of Dale Jr. and has won pretty much everywhere he’s been — watched the final few laps alone by his truck, in utter disbelief that another winnable Snowball Derby had passed him by.

The last time he felt that a Derby win was so within his reach was in 2017, when Kyle Busch somehow stole the show at the end after Pollard slowed. That was in the back of his mind all race, Pollard said.

“The same scenario was playing out,” Pollard said. “Back then, I ran too hard. I was leading. ... We ran too hard, and Busch saved his tires. And then the way this race was playing out, I thought about it the whole time. ... All that goes in the back of your mind for sure.”

Dale Earnhardt celebrates at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 16, 1998, after winning the Daytona 500. It was the only major race Earnhardt hadn’t won. An “impeccably preserved” No. 3 Dale Earnhardt race car tops the list of memorabilia his longtime friend and NASCAR team owner Richard Childress is auctioning off to benefit COVID-19 relief efforts.

It took 20 years for Dale Earnhardt to win the Daytona 500. Pollard still has two more years til that comes. The comparisons have come for a while now nonetheless.

The enduring image of Earnhardt’s victory of The Great American Race was the one of all the crew members lining up to give him high-fives to acknowledge what that great driver had finally done.

On Sunday, after Pollard’s difficult ending in Pensacola, throngs of fans came up to Pollard and offered not a line of high-fives, but hugs and headshakes and meaningful greetings — as if they were all acknowledging what this great driver will one day do.