By Chuck Corder
Life comes at you fast. Especially at the Snowball Derby.
Keep your head on a swivel when you come to Five Flags Speedway in December.
The most prestigious short-track race in America is full of surprises and always keeps its fans, but more importantly its drivers and their teams on their toes.
In less than 20 minutes, driving wunderkind Christopher Bell went from setting a blistering track record and snatching the pole for the Derby’s 48th running on Sunday to being resigned to today’s series of last-chance races.
The 21-year-old Kyle Busch Motorsports driver had his 16.027-second time thrown out in technical inspection.
“I hope it sticks around a while,” Bell said moments after. “It’s the first track record I’ve ever gotten. It was pretty surprising. I thought I under drove it, but I knew it was going to be a good lap.”
Too good, apparently.
Chief inspector Ricky Brooks determined both Bell’s No. 51 and defending Derby champion John Hunter Nemechek violated the rule book, resulting in both drivers’ qualifying times being thrown out.
The disqualification came when Brooks ruled both teams went well beyond the allowed seven inches of space between the center of the wheel and the right rear quarter panel.
“Not only was the rule violated in black and white, but so was the tolerance that is allowed,” said Brooks via Speed51.com’s Bob Dillner.
The news echoed across the famed half-mile asphalt oval that staged one heck of a qualifying session with 60 Super Late Models trying to be one of the top 30 cars guaranteed a spot Sunday.
Because of Bell’s issues, fellow 21-year-old driver Ty Majeski vaulted to the pole. The last time a poile sitter won the Derby came in 2005. That year, one of Pensacola’s favorite driving sons, Eddie Mercer, mercifully ended his long frustrations and hoisted the one trophy he long coveted.
Before Bell set his record lap, Majeski was the first to break the old mark. He turned a time of 16.120 seconds, topping Chase Elliott’s mark (16.133), set at the 2013 Derby.
Like Bell, Majeski is another 21 year old with a sparkling resume. The Wisconsin native has won 18 times at 13 different tracks this season.
Elliott will start outside of Majeski on Row 1 thanks to his 16.157 time. The 2011 Derby winner, three-time Snowflake 100 champion and 2014 NASCAR Xfinity Series king, Elliott is likely making one of his final appearances at the Derby.
Next season, he hops in Jeff Gordon’s old seat for Hendrick Motorsports in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series.
“It would’ve been nice to be a tick better to improve the starting spot, but it’s a long race on Sunday,” Elliott said.
Nemechek will be in Sunday’s field with Elliott courtesy of a past-champion’s provisional.
It will be more difficult for Bell, who must earn his way in during this afternoon’s series of last-chance races.
“I’ve got to fight my way (today),” said Bell, who captured a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Eldora Speedway in Ohio. “I’ve got the best team in the world with this 51 team. They’ve shown me a lot of respect, and now it’s in my hands to do it.”
Pensacola’s Logan Boyett (16.178) and Johanna Long (16.206) — the 2010 Derby champ — qualified fifth and seventh, respectively, with 2015 Blizzard Series champion Casey Roderick sandwiched between them in sixth.
Some notables that will compete alongside Bell in the last-chance races today include Five Flags regulars Junior Niedecken and Garrett Jones, and short-track stalwarts, such as Steve Doer and Boris Jurkovic.