So let’s not bury the kiss of destruction, ahem, I mean, the lead: I’m picking Travis Benjamin to make national short track history by winning his third consecutive AIM Recycling USA Oxford 250 on Sunday evening.
This is far from an obvious or safe pick. If you’re inclined to believe otherwise, please review the past three years of Pro All Stars Series results, the endless and obscenely talented driver roster for this race, and its five decades of unpredictably glorious history. Then buzz me back.
It is so much easier to enumerate the reasons why Benjamin probably WON’T win again that I am compelled to get them out of the way first.
Geoff Bodine, Ralph Nason, Ben Rowe and Eddie MacDonald each sped to successive 250 victories prior to Benjamin.
Now, those of us who hold this race in the highest esteem spout that “anybody can win” credo, every chance we get. Let’s be honest, though: Those four guys were heavy favorites the years they won it. Benjamin was the guy someone would put on their favorites list after the light bulb flickered on and we realized, “Oh, right, better not forget about him.”
It is harder to win PASS races these days than it was when your last name had to be Clark or Rowe to do so, as evidenced by the fact that, well, Benjamin doesn’t do so very often. Know how many non-Oxford 250s he has won since the end of the 2012 season? One.
Granted, that 150-lap victory came at Oxford Plains Speedway, and those three total triumphs have implanted the idea that Benjamin is bulletproof at OPS, or at least has the joint figured out. But so do Joey Doiron, Mike Rowe, Bryan Kruczek, all of whom own a tour win at the track since Benjamin’s second 250 title.
Domination of a single track is fleeting at most levels of racing. When you win, you stand pat and stick with what you know, while others sweat to get better. It’s possible, even likely, that somebody else has invented a better mousetrap in the past 13 months, leading to Benjamin’s results that are consistent, but not spectacular.
Nason, the gruff but likable “Sultan of Slaw” from Unity, is the only driver to string together three of these suckers. He relished the bad-guy role and played it with a flair that would have made the late “Rowdy” Roddy Piper of wrestling infamy smile.
His black-and-gold Fords were bad-fast in that era, but even Nason’s hammerlock on the title is a cautionary tale that instructs us not to expect the norm. Ralph was — how can I say this delicately? — a target in those years.
People loved to spin him out. He spun and won in both 1998 and 1999. I’ll never the post-race quotes after he ran afoul of Brad Leighton (“That shows you his character,” Nason spouted between sips of beer) the first year and Tracy Gordon (“I thought we were friends. That made me mad and it hurt my damn feelings”) the second.
Some of that abuse, of course, was a result of rivals’ perception, and Ralph being Ralph. I can’t imagine Travis having an enemy in the world. He’s just a good, all-around, next-door-neighbor kind of guy. You don’t see a picture of him away from the racetrack without his son attached to his hip. If you put a fender on Benjamin, I might have to assume you’re a jerk.
And Nason’s third 250 win was positively Benjamin-like. Dale Shaw, Jeff Taylor, Ben Rowe and Tracy Gordon all had better cars most of that weekend and for the first 200 laps of Sunday night. Ralph played the pit strategy to perfection, though, and he drove away at the finish.
The other three drivers’ attempts at a Triple Crown exhibit the pitfalls that make it such an unlikely feat.
Bodine, making his transition from Modified legend to future NASCAR Sprint (OK, Winston) Cup series star at that point, finished fifth in 1982. Mike Barry rallied from a lap down to win the race. Second through fourth? Butch Lindley, Dick McCabe and Bobby Dragon. See? You can’t keep beating guys who are also among the best at what they do forever.
Rowe had an awful day in 2005, taking a provisional start and finishing 28th. His dad, Mike, won for the third time, joining Nason and Dave Dion. Nobody else has won it three times, period, never mind consecutively.
Likewise, MacDonald’s attempt to continue his dominion over the 250’s late model era fell to the talent and checkbook of Kyle Busch. Nick Sweet and Austin Theriault were the only ones close enough to pounce if Busch faltered.
Jeff Taylor went door-to-door with Busch before the handling went away. Shoot, Taylor, the nine-time OPS super late model track champion, has never won this thing. That alone should make me shy away from picking Benjamin to win it a third time.
Yet I don’t. Why?
I don’t have anything substantive. Maybe I’m still mesmerized by seeing the drivers I picked in 2013 and 2014, Cassius Clark and Theriault, appear to be the fastest guys on the track at the finish but still unable to catch Benjamin.
He’s due to win and peaking at the proper time, with second-place finishes in two of his three most recent PASS starts. And he lives for 250s and 300s. You can throw out Benjamin’s record in 75, 150 and 200-lap races, because he’s simply too patient and gentlemanly to win the doggone things.
The Oxford 250 is his wheelhouse and his playground. By the time this ink dries, King Ralph will have company in the rarefied air on Mount Racemore.
There’s your lead.
Kalle Oakes is a staff writer. He has attended every Oxford 250 since 1980. Follow him on Twitter @Oaksie72 and his fan page on Facebook.
Catch all the action on the track and in the stands Sunday by following us on:
- The Oxford 250 live blog starting at 1 p.m.
- Twitter: @Sports_SJ
- Instagram: Sports_SJ
- Facebook: Sun Journal Sports