A stout field for the 53rd Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway will have representation from the Late Model ranks in the Southeast, as Justin Johnson will attempt to make his first start in the prestigious event through a partnership with Jay and Tate Fogleman.

Johnson was initially unsure if he would make the trip down to Pensacola for the Snowball Derby, but he considers himself honored to be among an elite group of drivers for the event and is hoping to deliver a strong performance on Sunday afternoon.

“We had been talking about if off and on for a couple of months,” Johnson said. “I didn’t want to commit to it because I had plans to go to Carteret [County] for that big race, but once we got word it had been cancelled, we went to see if that seat was still an option and everything ended up coming together very fast.”

Johnson will be piloting a car formerly driven by Tate, who had previously won a PASS South Super Late Model Series championship back in 2015. Tate and Jay elected to scale back their Super Late Model program after the former joined Young’s Motorsports in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series full-time in 2020.

With Tate shifting his focus over towards developing his NASCAR career, Jay wanted to keep the Super Late Model operation going and reached out to Johnson about running the Snowball Derby, who had previously driven one of the Fogleman cars in the early 2010s.

Johnson himself would have never envisioned competing in the Snowball Derby or any form of racing two years ago after he decided to retire early in 2018 to devote more time to his family, but he immediately realized how much he missed racing and returned to active competition before the season concluded.

“This is something that’s hard to get away from,” Johnson said. “I enjoy spending the weekends with my kids, but sometimes they get long and boring, especially when work gets old, so it’s really nice to just get away and do something at the track. We’re not where we want to be right now, but I enjoy the process a whole lot more.”

After competing in only a handful of races in 2019, Johnson embarked on a full-time campaign in the Solid Rock Carriers CARS LMSC Tour. Johnson ended up recording only one Top 10 finish at Dominion Raceway, but saw a potential race-winning run at Florence Motor Speedway get derailed by a mechanical issue at the halfway point.

Despite enduring mixed results in 2020, Johnson believed that the speed his car showed at Florence was evidence that his team was getting closer to victory lane, and he is looking forward to building on the momentum obtained from the end of the season into 2021 as soon as the Snowball Derby is behind him.

Although he has not driven a Super Late Model in several years, Johnson is optimistic that his past experience will aid him against so many talented drivers, but he plans to use patience to ensure that he has a spot in Sunday’s starting grid.

“The Super Lates drive a little easier in the steering wheel, but they have a lot more horsepower than a Late Model,” Johnson said. “They’re light, nimble and offset, but the Super races are more of a mind game kind of like the old Myrtle Beach races, in which you really have to keep the tires under you.”

Among the drivers that Johnson will have to contend with during the weekend include former Snowball Derby winners in Augie Grill and Travis Braded, along with Super Late Model veterans in Bubba Pollard and Ty Majeski, both of whom are searching for their first victory in the race.

There will also be plenty of NASCAR representation during the Snowball Derby in the form of Noah Gragson and Cup Series champions Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott. The trio have won the Snowball Derby five times between them.

With 55 drivers entered for the Snowball Derby, Johnson knows it will be a challenge to simply qualify for the main event, but Johnson is no stranger to going up against strong fields in Late Model competition and is ready to showcase his talents against many of the best Super Late Model competitors.

“I think we’ll be fine in the race,” Johnson said. “I don’t really see anyone going out and kicking Pollard’s butt by any means. It’s going to be a tight field and I think everything is going to boil down to strategy, taking tires at the right time and keeping the tires under you.”

Qualifying for the Super Late Models will take place on Friday evening, with a last chance qualifier setting the tail-end of the field on Saturday afternoon. The green flag for the Snowball Derby will drop at 2 p.m. on Sunday.