OXFORD – Mike Rowe’s bid to extend his streak of 19 consecutive starts in the TD Banknorth 250 is in jeopardy.
Rain Saturday has postponed the PASS sponsored IWK 250 pro-stock race at Riverside Speedway in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, until this afternoon.
Rowe, a three-time 250 champion, and his son Ben, a two-time race winner, are regulars on the PASS circuit, where they are currently second and first, respectively, in the points standings.
“Any way possible, we’re going to get back here,” Ben said during media day earlier this week. “We want to be in the 250. There’s no question that we want to be back in this race.”
With rain in the forecast, the Rowes made contingency plans in case they could not get back in time for today’s qualifying. Nine-time Oxford Plains Speedway track champion Jeff Taylor is expected to drive Ben’s car, while 1991 track champion and former Busch North veteran Tracy Gordon of Strong is planning on getting behind the wheel of Mike’s car.
Taylor and Gordon could qualify the cars and then step aside to allow the Rowes to compete in the 250, which isn’t scheduled to start until roughly 7 p.m.
Ben said that he and his father were exploring the possibility of flying back from Nova Scotia to get back in time for the 250.
Back in the driver’s seat
Ten years of rust doesn’t disappear after just a couple laps.
Robbie Crouch returned to racing Saturday by testing his car during a practice session for today’s 250. The Vermont resident had been away from the sport for 10 years.
“It felt good,” said Crouch. “Obviously, I don’t feel 100 percent as a driver, but I have a good car. So that helps a lot.”
Crouch intended to come out of retirement in the spring, but treatment for prostate cancer delayed those plans. Crouch finished second in the 250 three times and was in the top 10 seven times in 15 years. He won six ACT championships and has a record four wins at the Milk Bowl, a nationally recognized short-track event at Barre’s Thunder Road. He finished his ACT career with more than 80 feature victories.
Right now he doesn’t quite feel he’s the championship caliber he once was, but the rust is slowly wearing off.
“I still need to get a few laps under my belt,” said Crouch.
“I think I’ve got a better car than I’ve got a driver right now.”
Still, he’s excited to be back racing and seeing some familiar names, like Rowe, Dragon, Lepage, Labonte and Aube.
“It’s kind of an old-timer’s club,” he said. “I’m glad I’ve got company with people I know instead of a field with a bunch of young guys.”
Nextel Cup standout Kyle Busch, who competed in the last two 250 races, related some fond memories from his Oxford experience during an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Not among the popular drivers on the Cup circuit, the brazen driver is often greeted with boos. He discovered another side, he said, during his two visits to OPS, where he could mingle with the crowd and be free of the pressure from Cup racing.
“I get more cheers there (at Oxford) than I do at any other Cup or Busch venue,” Busch told the Milwaukee newspaper.
Busch, who was leading last year’s race before blowing an engine, competed Tuesday in the Miller Lite Slinger Nationals in Wisconsin. The race also attracted former 250 competitor Matt Kenseth and current and former NASCAR drivers Scott Wimmer, Dick Trickle, Rich Bickle and Erik Darnell. Busch finished 20th.
Five and counting
Kevin Lepage is still enjoying racing, but figures he might have just five years left in the sport. At age 45, he says he expects to race until he’s 50 and then move on.
“I’ve got about five more years of racing – either Busch, Cup or trucks, whatever happens,” said Lepage. “Then I don’t know. People have asked me to become a crew chief, but I don’t know if I want to be gone on weekends anymore.”
Lepage has been racing since 1980 and has driven many miles during his career. He admits NASCAR competition has changed since he went South in 1994. The sport is still growing and has become successful in large part to being accessible to the fans, he said.
Qualifying, however, hasn’t been easy. He loves the format of the 250 where the field is wide open and the infamous “luck of the draw” gives everyone a chance.
“We’ve had a really hard year, just based on the top 35 and the way the points are,” Lepage said. “If it would have been the top 43, we’d have been in three-quarters of the races that we’ve entered, but there’s only seven or eight spots per weekend depending on whether there are past champions available. So it becomes very difficult, and we’ve missed it by one spot in eight of the 15 races.”
Another trend in NASCAR is the recent suspensions that crew chiefs have faced for breaking rules. Lepage says the teams have become more creative in finding various means to get the best out of their cars, but the worst suspensions may still be coming.
“They’re trying to bring the racing back into the racer’s hands and not in the hands of the crew chief or the engineering,” he said. “I’d hate to be the next suspension, because I think the next one is going to be big.”