Brenden ‘Butterbean’ Queen prevails in exhilarating Thanksgiving Classic

(Photo: Brandon White/NASCAR Roots)

LUCAMA, N.C. — The final race in the 2023 Late Model Stock season came down to three of the best drivers currently competing in the discipline.

With 50 laps remaining in the Thanksgiving Classic at North Carolina’s Southern National Motorsports Park, Brenden Queen saw his lead gradually start to evaporate. In his rearview mirror with fresh tires was Late Model Stock legend Josh Berry, who was seeking to add one more victory before embarking on a full-time NASCAR Cup Series schedule in 2024.

Queen and Berry proceeded to exchange bumps and lead changes during a thrilling 15-lap stretch that brought versatile prospect Kaden Honeycutt into the mix. The three enthralled the crowd on a cold Sunday afternoon at Southern National as they engaged in an aggressive-but-clean battle for the win in the Thanksgiving Classic.

When the dust settled, Queen was the one who was parked in Victory Lane. He was simultaneously elated at besting two talented competitors and finally earning a Thanksgiving Classic trophy after several runner-up finishes.

“It’s the one that eluded us, and we finally got it,” Queen said. “I wanted this one bad, and we worked hard to get it. When it came down to it, I wasn’t going to roll over and let them take it from me. Lee Pulliam has worked so hard for me to win races this year. It was our night [on Sunday].”

Having experienced plenty of heartbreak in the Thanksgiving Classic before Sunday, Queen knew he and Pulliam needed to be perfect with their strategy to finally check this crown jewel off their list.

With several cautions subsequently creating opportunities to pit, Queen felt fortunes were finally falling his way. He cycled to the front of the pack with 100 laps remaining, earning the benefit of clean air in the process.

The advantage would only last momentarily for Queen. Berry’s fresh rubber meant that Queen would have to go on defense to fend off a driver who had two Thanksgiving Classic victories on his resume.

Even with the odds in Berry’s favor, Queen was determined to match him in every regard until the veteran wore out his tires.

“I was racing my heart out,” Queen said. “These races are chances for me to showcase myself and try to make a name for myself. If I want to make this a career, I’ve got to win races against the best. [Josh] is one of the best I’ve ever raced with.”

Honeycutt capitalized on Queen and Berry oscillating for the top spot to fight his way back into contention for the Thanksgiving Classic. Losing a lap on the previous run meant Honeycutt had to use more tire than desired from the back of the field, yet he still managed to apply plenty of pressure on the frontrunners.

A three-wide maneuver by Honeycutt for the lead in Turn 1 saw him and Queen make contact, creating a buffer between the two after Queen assumed the top spot. Honeycutt tried to chase Queen back down after overtaking Berry but admitted the two cars had equalized during the closing moments.

The aggressive racing from Queen did not earn the praise of Honeycutt, who plans to remember the ending to Sunday’s Thanksgiving Classic the next time he encounters Queen on track.

“[Brenden] ran straight into Josh every opportunity he had,” Honeycutt said. “I like Brenden a lot, but you can only race that type of way for so long, especially against someone like Josh who I have a ton of respect for and has earned his way into the Cup Series. [Brenden] has lost [my respect].”

Conversely, Berry was not as agitated with the assertive driving and believed Queen was better than him during the final run.

Reflecting on the finish, Berry admitted he was too conservative on the final restart trying to navigate through slower traffic, which allowed Queen to build a significant gap. By the time Berry reached Queen, he had lost the advantage the fresher tires would have provided with a smaller deficit.

Berry could not recall participating in a duel like the one with Queen and Honeycutt during his Late Model Stock career. He enjoyed his time at Southern National despite the third-place finish and now plans to shift his focus over toward his Cup Series efforts.

“It was rough, but it’s easy to get frustrated over that stuff,” Berry said. “I got around [Queen], and I can’t really remember everything that happened. I thought I was clean about it the first time but then he [hit] me and it was on from there. If I ran [Late Model Stocks] full time, I might have been a little rougher, but I respect these guys a lot.

“I’ve been really lucky to have a lot of great races, and you can’t win them all.”

Brenden Queen’s victory in the Thanksgiving Classic at Southern National Motorsports Park wrapped up a stellar first season with Lee Pulliam Performance. (Ted Malinowski/NASCAR)

By holding off Berry and Honeycutt, Queen recorded another crown jewel triumph with Lee Pulliam Performance in his first year with the team, having already won the Hampton Heat and the 2022 South Carolina 400 with the organization.

Queen still finds himself in disbelief over how much he has grown as a person and driver since departing the family-owned operation at the end of 2022. The past year has been dominated by one positive after another for Queen, who is eager for the offseason to pass so he can chase more checkered flags with Pulliam.

“I wish the season wasn’t ending,” Queen said. “This shows the bond that we have. This whole team is like family, and we believe in each other no matter what. When you’re like that, you’re almost invincible.”

No matter how many more races he wins, Queen intends to cherish the ending to Sunday’s Thanksgiving Classic and how he defeated one of the best drivers to ever compete in a Late Model Stock.

Queen knows there will be a target on his back next year with how efficient he and Pulliam were together in 2023. For now, Queen is focusing on his season-ending accomplishment and how to use that momentum to be even better moving forward.

“I can end the year as a winner,” Queen said. “They say you’re only as good as your last race and I’ve got a couple of months to enjoy this.”

Earning that elusive Thanksgiving Classic victory was a stressful endeavor for Queen, but it also showed he was not willing to back down even when faced with tremendous adversity from a driver like Berry.

A quality that will one day propel Queen to the same level Berry is moving up to in 2024.