Would the real No. 26 please stand up?
It’s been several years now, but Chandler Smith remembers approaching Bubba Pollard during Speedfest and telling him that his goal was to become ‘the real No. 26’ or something to that effect. Back then, Smith had just started driving Pro Late Models and Pollard was the undisputed king of the Super Late Model world.
It was in good fun, of course, but Smith has done his part to make good on that promise. He is the reigning Snowball Derby winner and is also the top Toyota Racing Development driving prospect. During that same time, Pollard entered into an extreme slump.
For a second, it looked like Smith had indeed become The No. 26 of his generation, until Pollard reminded the entire industry who he is and what he is capable of when things are pointed in the right direction.
Pollard outdueled Smith in a spirited but entirely professional battle to claim the second Speedfest Super Late Model victory of his career. Pollard retook the lead for good on a restart with 93 laps to go and withstood the best restarts Smith could throw at him on two different occasions.
After ending 2021 with a strong Snowball Derby, and opening 2022 with victories in the Red Eye 50 and Speedfest, is Bubba Pollard back?
"Yeah, I guess," Pollard said, "That's what people are going to say, right? We've just been working hard and got to keep it going. It just shows what Port City Race Cars is capable of, and for my guys who have stuck behind me and run the roads, we all proved that we have a car again that can compete for wins and we just have to make it happen."
It took a lot to get back to where Pollard felt like he was on level playing field against Donnie Wilson Motorsports, Stephen Nasse Racing and Jett Motorsports.
"It’s been a lot of struggle and a lot of headache," Pollard said. "My parents always taught me if you can’t give 100 percent, you shouldn’t be doing it. That’s been my goal in anything I do, and I’ve been giving this 100 percent.
"It’s taken a lot of effort by everyone, and even if we were a little on the tight side tonight, we still had speed.
Did he remind Smith in the process of who the Top No. 26 in Georgia still is?
"Yeah, he’s got a long way to go to be the 26," Pollard said with a chuckle. "He’s experienced and he’s gotten real good over the last several years. He’s got confidence and that goes a long way. It’s the same for me when we’re winning all those races a couple of years ago, confidence and experience. They have a great team, and it felt really good to be able to run with them."
Smith isn’t letting it go though. (This is a joke, by the way) He is adamant that one head-to-head defeat doesn’t change the narrative.
"No, he’s still not the real number 26," Smith said with an equal laugh, "and I’ll tell him that too even though he beat me. But whatever – two 26s, 1-2 finish."
All joking aside, Smith felt a lot of pride to have that battle with Pollard because he grew up in the same region as Pollard and wanted to be just like him someday. Now they had a dramatic 1-2 finish in their shared home state, the Peach State.
"I always wanted to race with him when he was in his prime, like when he was on rails a couple of years ago, and I think you’re going to see that Bubba Pollard moving forward the rest of this year. But we’re going to work on our stuff too, and make sure that it’s the 26S and not the 26P in Victory Lane."
The entire race was a consistent duel between Pollard and Smith.
Behind them, the likes of Carson Hocevar, Stephen Nasse, Michael Atwell, Josh Berry and Jake Garcia jockeyed for positions in the top-five. Hocevar, who qualified third in time trials on Friday appeared to have the third or fourth best car, but a broken shifter kept him outside the top-five for most of the race.
Defending race winner and pole sitter Corey Heim pitted with a mechanical issue on Lap 74 and left Pollard and Smith without their most obvious challenger.
Nasse, Atwell and Berry were eliminated from contention on Lap 135 when Atwell slid up into Nasse and collected Berry. Atwell and Nasse door slammed on the restart entering Turn 1 and hit again the next lap, sending all three off the track.
From there, it was up to Pollard to hold Smith off on the restart. He chose the outside, and it almost cost him before a debris caution undid Smith taking the lead from Pollard on Lap 140. Given a second chance, Pollard executed the outside line restart and drove away to the win.
"I didn’t get a good restart that first time," Pollard said. "I'm a little bit rusty, and it shows. I knew the second and third restarts would need me to get up on the wheel and make it happen. I knew I could clear him on the outside.
"As long as I could stay up to his right front, I could clear him into 3. I’ve been racing here a long time and you have to be too perfect to make it happen on the bottom. It’s just experience here and knowing you can wrap the top if you do it just right."
It was peak Pollard, and perhaps a sign of things to come.
1. Bubba Pollard
2. Chandler Smith
3. Carson Hocevar
4. Jake Garcia
5. Corey Heim
6. Ryan Moore
7. Michael House
8. Stephen Nasse
9. William Sawalich
10. Michael Atwell
11. Tyler Church
12. Michael Hinde
13. Rich Clouser
14. Kyle McCallum
15. Daniel Dye
16. John Coffman
17. Joe Ross
18. Josh Berry
19. Kyle Plott
20. Albert Francis