PORTLAND – The Nextel Cup express keeps rolling through Maine.
Denny Hamlin, who won the Budweiser Shootout at Daytona earlier this year, will compete in the TD Banknorth 250 at Oxford Plains Speedway.
Hamlin, 25, is the third driver with ties to Nextel Cup who will compete in the July 30 race, joining Joe Gibbs Racing teammate J.J. Yeley and former Nextel Cup driver and 1991 race champion Ricky Craven.
“Guys like Joe Gibbs have an eye for talent,” Bill Ryan, the owner of Oxford Plains Speedway, said at a news conference Monday. “To have another guy come up here like Denny is incredible.”
According to Ryan, Hamlin’s interest was sparked by Yeley, another Gibbs’ rookie teaming with current Cup champion Tony Stewart.
Hamlin has a traditional short-track background. After winning 127 go-kart races, including the first race he entered at age 7, Hamlin shifted to stock cars and won a mini-stock championship at 16. In 2003, Hamlin won 25 features in late model races in Virginia.
Racing two full-time schedules, Hamlin is 18th in Nextel Cup, including a fourth-place finish at Texas, and third in Busch series points standings, with one victory, two poles and three top 5s.
“It all started for me on short tracks,” Hamlin said in a statement released by the track. “Other than racing at Bristol and Martinsville, we don’t have a lof of those kind of tracks on our NASCAR schedule. I hear the TD Banknorth 250 is one of he biggest and toughest late model races anywhere, and I’m really looking forward to it.”
Hamlin will drive a car provided to him by King Motorsports and driver Scott King. The Livermore Falls racer was fifth in last year’s pro stock standings.
The express to Oxford may not end with Hamlin. Ryan revealed that he expects to finalize plans that will bring a fourth Nextel Cup driver to the TD Banknorth 250. Ryan has also heard from a media contact that rookie David Stremme has expressed interest in coming to Oxford.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, several top-notch drivers competed in the 250 when it was part of the Busch Grand National circuit. That connection dried up in 1993. With Nextel Cup races held the same weekend as the 250, the big names stayed away from Oxford until 2004, when a free weekend lured Nextel Cup champions Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch.
It was a conversation with Stewart that opened the door. When Ryan discovered that the 250 fell on Nextel Cup’s open weekend, he approached drivers with the reputation for racing on all types of tracks. At the top of the list was Stewart.
“Tony had a conflict,” Ryan said. “Then Matt’s people called and said, Hey, we know you reached out to Tony. Matt may want to do it.'”
After receiving answers on numerous questions about the facility, race and the quality of the car he would drive, Kenseth signed on and brought teammate Busch with him. Kenseth returned last year with Busch’s younger brother, Kyle.
The addition of Nextel Cup drivers has heightened the awareness of the event, attracting casual fans, media attention and sponsorship dollars.
“It all perpetuates itself,” Ryan said.