Where did Josh Berry come from?
The murmurs buzzed through the bleachers of a jam-packed Five Flags Speedway Friday night during Super Late Model qualifying for the 55th annual Snowball Derby presented by Hooters.
With an overflowing crowd expecting California driver Derek Thorn to claim his fourth consecutive pole for the biggest race in America, it will be Barry who leads the field to the opening green flag of the 300-lap race Sunday.
The 32-year-old driver laid down Friday night’s fastest lap (16.333 seconds) of the 50 drivers who took time and hoped to make the Derby without relying on provisionals or Saturday’s last-chance races.
“It’s pretty awesome,” said Berry, who is driving the No. 26 for War Rackley Racing out of his native Tennessee. “I can’t thank this team for bringing me here to race. It’s been a lotta fun. We’ve had a good week. We’ve worked smart and made the car better each time we’ve been on the racetrack. That’s all you could ask for.”
Opening night: Snowball Derby crowns three first-time champs on Night 1
Berry has made only one previous Derby start, finishing in the top-30 after starting sixth for JR Motorsports in 2019. Berry, who won three NASCAR Xfinity Series races this season for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team, came to Pensacola hotter than a pistol. He won the Thanksgiving All-Star Classic last Sunday in Kenley, N.C., and pocketed a cool $50,000. It was his 100th career win for JR Motorsports.
Despite not earning the pole, Thorn never disappoints at Five Flags. His time of 16.378 seconds will put him on the outside of Berry come Sunday.
The most exciting 90 minutes in short-track racing was thrilling, as usual. Seventeen-year-old Conner Jones went from outside the starting field on his first lap to top of the heap on his second lap before ultimately yielding to Berry and Thorn. Jones will start third Sunday.
NASCAR Cup star Brad Keselowski (16.719 seconds) failed to get in on time and will be fighting and clawing through the last-chance race Saturday to get into Sunday’s show.
“I’ve never been to a racetrack that has this big of a crowd just for qualifying,” Keselowski said. “It’s a testament to the track and these fans.”
New Hampshire’s Derek Griffith, 25, had to sweat out the final qualifier before knowing his fate. Griffith sat on the Derby bubble, watching anxiously from his pit as California driver Jeremy Doss took time. When Doss’ time was good enough to get in, Griffith dropped his head and began immediately focusing on the long day ahead of him Saturday.
“It’s tough. Man, to be bumped out by a hundredth of a second, it’s crazy,” Griffith said. “It’s the toughest race in the country. Everybody here is somebody. I didn’t wanna be here in this position, but I’m glad I’ll be on the point.”
Drivers joining Keselowski and Griffith in the last-chance races include former Derby polesitter Preston Peltier, Casey Johnson, Jesse Love, Brad May and Boris Jurkovic.
Past Derby champs and NASCAR stars Erik Jones, Ty Majeski and Noah Gragson all made the race along with Bubba Pollard—still searching for his first career Derby title—William Byron, Hunter Robbins and Jake Garcia among others. Augie Grill and Stephen Nasse earned Derby provisionals for their top-10 season performances in the Deep South Cranes Blizzard Series and Southern Super Series, respectively.
This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Berry grabs pole for 55th Snowball Derby, Keselowski Highlights Last-Chancers