Oxford 250: Travis Benjamin hopes to leg out triple on Sunday

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OXFORD — Back when he was on the endless list of drivers who could only fantasize about winning an AIM Recycling Oxford 250, Travis Benjamin would think out loud, marveling to friends about the accomplishments of Waldo County neighbor Ralph Nason.

“We were getting ready to come over here two years ago and I said to one of my friends, ‘This guy won it three times in a row! How do you do that?’ Now we have the opportunity to try it, cross our fingers,” Benjamin said.

Benjamin, 36, of Morrill, bids Sunday to achieve that measure of regional racing immortality. More than 80 drivers are expected at Oxford Plains Speedway to take aim at his streak. Qualifying begins at 1:30 p.m., with the main event expected to end after sunset.

Nason (1998, 1999 and 2000) is the only driver to win three consecutive Oxford 250s. Mike Rowe, who is now 65 and entered this year, and Dave Dion each have victories in three different decades —  Rowe in 1984, 1997 and 2005; Dion in 1975, 1985 and 1992.

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Geoff Bodine (1980 and 1981), Ben Rowe (2003 and 2004) and Eddie MacDonald (2009 and 2010) all preceded Benjamin, successfully defending their titles before slipping at the next rung of the ladder.

“We raced here (four) weeks ago and I was real happy with the car,” Benjamin said. “I think we’ll be there.”

Benjamin started ninth, had a perfect midrace pit stop and made a bold move in traffic to stay ahead of Joey Doiron on 2013. For an encore, he slid into the race through the consolation round, took the green flag 27th and surged through the field last summer.

Rivals had faster cars, at times, but Benjamin held the winning hand of consistent speed, sound pit strategy, and yes, luck that are required to win an Oxford 250 once, then twice. Cassius Clark charged on the south side of lap 200 in 2013, and Austin Theriault made the same rally in 2014.

“Two years ago if we’d had a caution, Cassius had put tires on and he was coming,” Benjamin said. “Last year we pitted really late. I honestly thought that was too late. In both situations it’s worked out, but I think if there had been a caution in either one, we could have been in trouble.”

That measured approach is typical of how Benjamin goes about his business in Pro All Stars Series North competition.

Benjamin is a quiet third in points this season, with four top-5 finishes in 12 races. Seven different drivers have at least one win. He isn’t one of them.

All three of his wins since the end of 2012 have come at OPS. And Benjamin appears to be peaking at the proper time with a pair of runner-up finishes in the past three PASS North races. He was sixth in the H.P. Hood 150 at Oxford on Aug. 2.

The extra hundred laps seem to fit Benjamin’s style like a well-worn fire suit.

“We started 24th and drove to fifth in 80 laps. Then I kind of rode around. In a 250 you can do that. With about 30 laps to go, I kind of caught myself, ‘Oh, crap, we’ve got to get going.’ By then we were a straightaway behind and we didn’t get a caution,” Benjamin said. “I have a tendency to get out there sometimes just to log laps and save my stuff. In 150s I feel I do save it maybe too much. 250s you’ve got a chance to save and put yourself in position at the end.”

The traditional pre-race draw to set the qualifying lineups for the 250 and other PASS events has been unkind to Benjamin the past two years.

Changes in the rulebook also have tightened the field, he said. The proliferation of so-called “crate” motors — Benjamin still runs the traditional big power plant in his car — has increased super late model car counts and brought more challengers into the mix.

“In 20 laps everybody is so competitive. It’s not like you’re going to pass five or six cars (in a heat race). You might pass two or three,” Benjamin said. “We’ve started 15th or worse in every race except four this year. The competition is so good that it’s very hard to start that far back and get up there. The races that we have started top 10, we’ve finished top-3.”

Benjamin will have enjoyed more time as defending champion than any Oxford 250 winner in history: 770 days, as of Sunday.

This year’s move from mid-July to late-August was designed to promote a new spirit of cooperation with the competing American-Canadian Tour.

“It does give you more time to figure stuff out, as long as you don’t reinvent the wheel, which is easy to try to do,” he said.

Nason was 60 when he completed his Oxford 250 triple crown.

Benjamin, whose father, Ron, raced against Ralph all throughout Travis’ childhood, doesn’t imagine himself hanging around that long and putting the record of wins in the crown jewel event out of sight for everyone else.

As he answered questions at Wednesday’s pre-race media day, 8-year-old Kaiden Benjamin, already a go-kart racer, scurried about excitedly.

Reminded that drivers only five or six years older than his son have competed in the Oxford 250 since promoter Tom Mayberry took the helm at the speedway, Benjamin smiled.

“My career is getting shorter every day, which I don’t mind,” Benjamin said. “I enjoy going and watching him race. I’m more nervous watching him race than I ever am when I race.”

One of the strangest best-seats-in-the-house is being one of the non-winners in an Oxford 250. A 19-year-old Benjamin finished second in his heat and ran 17th in the main event the year Nason captured his first checkered flag.

“He spun out twice and won the thing,” Benjamin said. “I still don’t know how he did that.”

koakes@sunjournal.com

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