OXFORD — Quick, name the two top-ranked Late Model drivers at Oxford Plains Speedway heading into Sunday’s TD Bank 250.
Tick, tock, tick, tock …
Nine-time champion Jeff Taylor and defending division king Tim Brackett sound like a great guess. Or at least a logical shot in the dark. Of course, it would be wrong.
Cue the game show thinking music …
Shawn Martin and Ricky Rolfe? Makes sense. Both have been feature winners. But Martin missed a race due to a family commitment and Rolfe is riveted on the American-Canadian Tour.
If you had Winthrop’s Jeff White and Otisfield’s Don Wentworth in the pool, you’re a winner.
And an unlikely one, at least on the surface.
White and Wentworth have raced at OPS since the 1980s. When they’re geared up for a full season, one or two visits to victory lane are a safe bet.
But in this game of consistency, closer to retirement than to that long-ago rookie season, both men are clicking off a career year and injecting their names into a coveted place in that annual conversation about 250 favorites.
“I don’t feel any different this year. It’s still anybody’s game,” White said. “There are so many good cars and good competitors.”
Each driver perfectly timed his first win of a weather-ravaged season.
White, 46, ran away from the field at the ACT Big Jab 150 on June 5, dominating the second half of the event with touring titans Brian Hoar, Brent Dragon and Joey Polewarczyk in tow.
“It’s good to have that win, but I don’t think it gives me any advantage,” White said. “That night was like driving a Cadillac down the highway. It’s been a long time since I had a car like that.”
Surviving the roughest 40-lap race of the season Saturday night made Wentworth, 48, the final weekly winner prior to the main event of summer.
“If momentum means anything, we’ve certainly got to have some confidence,” Wentworth said. “We’ve finished second and first the last two races. We know the car is capable.”
That prime real estate in the points parade has its privileges.
As the leader, White is guaranteed a provisional starting position in the 250 regardless of his fate in three rounds of heat race qualifying, feared by drivers and adored by fans.
“Me and Kyle Busch,” White said with a wry smile, referring to the NASCAR star who also is presumably locked into the race. “I haven’t looked at the points, but that’s what they tell me.”
White secured that status with a third-place finish Saturday.
He was helped by a series of mid-race crashes that took out Taylor, Rolfe, Carey Martin and T.J. Brackett, among others.
“It’s been pretty rough. We’ve been lucky,” White said. “Two weeks ago we got caught up and spun out and we got back to 10th. This week we were third and the car was pretty good. We started in the back and missed the wrecks.”
White probably would have to be involved in his own wreck or experience some unforeseen mechanical disaster to strike out at qualifying in the conventional way. He’s a multi-time 250 heat winner, including July 2010.
Assuming that White walks through the front door, the free pass then would fall into the hands of Wentworth, in the event of an emergency.
“We’ll be rooting for Jeff to make it no matter what, but even if I were the point leader, I wouldn’t be sitting on a provisional,” Wentworth said. “Too many things happen when you start in the back. We all know the score. You have double-file restarts and all that traffic.”
White’s win in the June ACT race demonstrated the value of qualifying through the first round. He started on the pole and never left the leader board.
Both drivers have turned as many hundreds of laps around the 3/8-mile Oxford circle in their dreams as in real life. White and Wentworth both debuted at the track in the old Super Street division (later Limited Sportsman).
Wentworth stepped up to Late Model in 1998. White accelerated to the Pro Stock ranks shortly after, cycling back to the Sportsman cars when they became Oxford’s top weekly division in 2007.
“There were times when I tried to give it up,” Wentworth said. “Then I’d go out on my deck on a Saturday night and I lived close enough to hear the roar of the engines. It kept calling me back.”
There are subtle differences between the two surprise leaders. White’s chassis is built by Taylor at Distance Racing. Wentworth is a longtime customer of Race Basics, owned by Mitch and Judy Green.
In the age-old battle between local weekend warriors and touring standouts, White and Wentworth each believe their experience and their mode of transportation is sufficient to tilt the scale.
“The tour guys have a lot more experience running on newer tires, and they also have more experience fine-tuning their car,” White said. “I get mine to where I like it and I leave it alone.”
No OPS racer has won the 250 under the current Late Model format. Jeremie Whorff (2006) is the only weekly competitor to carry the checkered flag in the past nine years.
That doesn’t stop Wentworth from dreaming. He finished eighth a year ago.
“It’s so steeped in tradition. I hadn’t really taken the time to stop and think about (making the race) as the highlight of my career,” Wentworth said. “It was always the pinnacle of what I hoped to accomplish in stock car racing.”
If either White or Wentworth climbs that mountain Sunday night, the name will never escape anybody, again.