OXFORD – No matter where he was, his thoughts would migrate north this time of year.
It has been years since Kevin Lepage raced in the TD Banknorth 250, but that didn’t mean the NASCAR Nextel Cup veteran wasn’t still interested in what was happening in the nation’s richest short track race.
“Even though I’ve been gone since 1994, I’ve kept in communication with Todd (Graffam) a bit, and when this time of year comes around, we’d always ask who won the Oxford 250, just like we’d ask who won the Milk Bowl. You always try to pay attention to those big races. They’re big races for people in New England.”
So when Graffam and Archie St. Hilaire decided to buy a car and enter it in this year’s 250, Lepage was the driver they called. Lepage had the week off from NASCAR and was going to be vacationing in Maine. It was an offer he could not refuse.
“Of all the race tracks that I’ve raced, Oxford is one of my favorites,” said Lepage.
The Vermont native lived in Maine during the 1980s. Competing in the 250 four times, Lepage’s best finish came in 1985 when he placed 11th. He also raced in 1981 and 1984 and finished 13th in 1993.
He won a combined 11 NASCAR North and ACT races from 1979 to 1993 before becoming one of the few New England drivers to race fulltime in the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series. His best finish came at Darlington in 1998 when he took fifth, an effort he matched at the Great American Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas in 2000. He finished ninth in the 2005 Daytona 500.
Despite his success in circuits down south, Lepage still has a fondness for the 250 and is excited about returning to his roots.
“This was always our Daytona 500 when I raced up here, because of how many race cars came, and how big the race purse was, and how big the race was,” he said. “There was just a lot of prestige. Even before I was racing, I used to come over and watch it. It was just a great race to come to. To come back 14 or 15 years later is a real neat deal for me.”
What he remembers most about the 250 from his four appearances is how much of a threat Mike Rowe was. Rowe, who won it in 1984, is one of just three racers to have three victories at the 250. Lepage ran into Rowe at Loudon, N.H., last month and couldn’t help but talk about the 250.
“Anytime you come home, even when we’re in New Hampshire, to see a lot of the old faces and the friendships we’ve developed over the years and all the people that will be here, it will just be a good time no matter what we do,” he said.
He calls the 250 a survival race. On Thursday in his practice session, he wanted to establish a comfort with the outside groove, but passing cars and coming from behind isn’t the kind of strategy Lepage wants to resort to.
“250 laps, basically it’s like a road course, you want to stay on the asphalt all day long,” he said. “You don’t want to be spun out and turned sideways or be part of a caution. That’s where you lose positions, and it’s really hard to make up.”
Lepage has already enjoyed his vacation. Returning to Maine, spending time on the beach and enjoying moments with his family have all taken him away from the rigors of Nextel Cup life. Renewing his ties to the 250 has been an extra special bonus.
“The whole deal will be a fun deal for me,” he said. “Obviously, we’re coming here to win the thing, but the biggest thing is to come here and have fun.”