OXFORD — Picking the winner of tonight’s TD Bank 250 is simple as seeing where we are.
I know, smart guy. We’re at Oxford Plains Speedway. Route 26. With that kind of vast knowledge, you should skip the race and play games of chance up the road.
What I mean is the historical context of this race in what is now a 39-year exercise in time travel. The 250 is an event whose only constant since the Summer of Watergate is change.
We divide our favorite stick-and-ball games into eras. Baseball has the live-ball era, the dead-ball era, the pre-integration era and the steroid era. Everything in football is weighed pre-free agency or post-merger. Golf accomplishments are defined by whether they happened during Palmer’s prime, Nicklaus’ reign or Woods’ heyday.
Oxford’s crown jewel has its mileposts, too, albeit more of them.
First came infancy (1974-1980), when drivers were still figuring out if or when to pit for fuel and tires and NASCAR still scored races by hand.
Both elements created their share of confusion. Joey Kourafas (’74) and Geoff Bodine (’80) won races when their closest competition ran out of gas at the finish. Butch Lindley (’76) celebrated a victory that Ralph Nason disputes to this day.
Next came the what’s-in-it-for-me years (1981-1989). Lap leader bonus money had been introduced, and as was the tenor in the nation at that time, many well-intentioned, would-be winners succumbed to the temptation to make hay while the sun shined.
Ed Howe, Dick McCabe, Jeff Stevens, Billy Clark and Kelly Moore were among the fast and furious who led laps by the dozen but couldn’t claim the big prize. Mike Barry (‘82), Mike Rowe (’84), Dave Dion (’85) and Jamie Aube (’87 and '89) famously waited their turn and reaped the benefits. And yes, McCabe (’88) finally got to stick a fork into his just desserts.
Arguably the least compelling period for me was the tour-or-else decade (1990-2000).
During that time, if you were a point leader or had the biggest budget on the series feeding the most drivers into the field, you usually won. Poster-boy examples: Chuck Bown (’90), Ricky Craven (’91), Junior Hanley (’93), Dave Whitlock (’95) and Nason’s polarizing stranglehold (’98 to ’00).
We moved onto the segment in which being from Maine was necessary and calling OPS your home track was even better (2001-2006).
The speedway’s tumultuous relationship with the Pro All Stars Series played a role, as the number of annual tour races dwindled to one or two, if any. And Oxford was repaved in the fall of 2002, giving local drivers a decided advantage on both the bumpy, cracked old layout or the smooth, treacherous new one.
Gary Drew (’01), Scott Robbins (’02) and Jeremie Whorff (’06) kept the $25,000-plus winner’s check in the local economy, Ben Rowe (’03 and ’04) had won multiple championships at Oxford in the 1990s before he graduated to touring, and dad Mike (’05), well, he’s simply the King of Oxford in any era.
And now we’re living in arguably the most controversial period of all. What you call it probably depends upon what your preference is in high-dollar race cars and whether or not you write for a family publication.
It’s a contradictory time. The field is dominated by late model cars that are housed mostly in Maine and Vermont, with drivers that race them almost every weekend. Yet not a single winner has hailed from the Pine Tree or Green Mountain states, and victory lane has been the almost exclusive domain of outsiders who typically steer much more powerful machines.
Eddie MacDonald has won two of the past three 250s while essentially taking a beach day from his primary focus as a privateer on the Sprint Cup-influenced K&N Pro Series East. Cup drivers Kevin Harvick (’08) and Kyle Busch (’11) took the locals to school at a track where each had minimal experience, in cars they built for a one-and-done whistle stop.
The lesson here is that local knowledge isn’t the golden ticket that it used to be. In fact, having turned more than a thousand race and practice laps at OPS between Mother's Day and the fourth Sunday in July might be a detriment. It's information overload in an information age.
My pick to win the latest installment in this contradictory epoch is, well, a bundle of contradictions.
He’s a Mainer who probably has turned more laps at Oxford the past two decades than anyone. For certain nobody has won more races here in that span than he.
But — and it’s a huge qualifier — he has completely stayed away from the track this spring and summer. Knowing what a smart dude he is, I suspect that it’s by design.
He dislikes late models relative to their “super” cousins, but he builds them brilliantly. Everywhere you look this season, the next-generation drivers he has mentored are winning races.
The temptation to stay out and listen to the ringing of the cash register and the long arm of failed pit strategy have struck him down multiple times in the past. As recently as 52 weeks ago, in fact.
It’s his time, and his approach to the season is a perfect fit for the TD Bank 250 era we’re experiencing.
If you’re standing next to Farmington's Jeff Taylor as the sun sets over the Western foothills this evening, you’ll have no question where you are.
Kalle Oakes is a staff columnist who has attended every TD Bank 250 since 1984. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.