For the first time in two years, Bubba Pollard left Five Flags Speedway for the holidays thinking he had something to work with.
At first blush, a 13th place finish in the Snowball Derby wasn’t particularly noteworthy, but one must understand where he came from to appreciate where he is. This was the first time since 2017 that Pollard has even finished the race.
The 2020 race was especially frustrating as he was lapped early and forced to retire with mechanical issues. Port City Race Cars is the third different chassis manufacturer that Pollard has raced with in as many years.
But this time, Pollard has a positive direction.
After starting the race inside the top-10, the No. 26 spent much of the first two thirds inside the top-5 and only fell outside over the final run. The lack of speed was immediate and the result of a bad adjustment on an unpredictable tire.
The speed was there and that was the most encouraging development.
"We were good the first couple of runs and tried to make it better, but just got tight," Pollard said. "We just didn't make the right adjustments that we needed. We couldn't find the right balance.
"All in all, it was a good weekend. The car had good speed and we have something to build on heading into next year. That's a good thing and makes you feel good. We have some work to do and these Port City guys have done a hell of a job to get us here over the past several months. I'm happy with where we're at and heading into next year."
That is objectively the most optimistic Pollard has sounded since the summer of 2020. He opened the year with seven victories over his first 14 starts but began to suffer mechanical woes during the autumn months, falling out of the biggest races of the year at Oxford, Nashville, Winchester and Slinger.
That resulted in a Snowball Derby switch from Senneker Race Cars to VanDoorn Racing Development, but that was not a positive experience either.
Pollard took large swaths of 2021 off to operate the family dirt track in Senoia, Georgia, but also to run his family construction business and spend time with his family. But Pollard also launched a new relationship with Gary Crooks and Port City.
At the Derby, Pollard worked alongside NASCAR Cup Series crew chief and 2007 CRA Super Series champion Chris Gabehart in a sister car driven by Ryan Preece.
Pollard spoke so highly of the combination all week, especially as both teams worked on a brand-new chassis configuration.
"They're just great people," Pollard said. "Everyone put in the work to get what we needed. We didn't have a notebook or data. It was a different kind of Port City Race Car.
Ryan and I leaned on each other a lot, and on Chris, and I don't know if that showed up on the last run that we couldn't adjust like we needed to. There is a lot of 'what ifs' but we have a direction and I'm happy with that. We just have to build upon it. We have to keep building."
Pollard made headlines over the week by indicating he would largely retire from full-time pavement racing to pursue a full-time dirt career if he won the Snowball Derby.
"One more year, I guess," Pollard said with a chuckle.
But seriously though?
"You wouldn't believe the number of people that came up and said something about that," Pollard said. "I'll still race (pavement) a lot, but I would like to do more dirt racing."
But Pollard said the pavement community will see him race for years to come. They're not losing him any more than they lost him over the past two years at least.
"They've lost me the last year," Pollard said, "but we're coming back to win some races."