Ben Rowe holds off a tight pack of six drivers to win his first True Value 250.

OXFORD – In seven star-crossed summers at the True Value 250, Ben Rowe handled losing his first try in bizarre fashion and finishing second to Ralph Nason, twice, with grace.

He finally won it the same way. Just add two more G’s, guts and grit, to the equation.

Rowe, 28, captured the only major northeastern Pro Stock title to elude him Sunday night, winning the biggest and richest traditional short track race in the region in the closest multi-car finish in the 30-year history of the event.

The heartbreak kid from Turner led the race three different times, snookering former champion Gary Drew with an aggressive jump on a lap 209 restart and averting near disaster when a three-car crash blocked the track in front of him as he entered the third turn of the 3/8-mile oval with three laps remaining.

Runner-up Steve Knowlton of Ipswich, Mass., offered one final bid to the outside as the leaders took the white flag and raced down the back stretch on the final lap. With Otisfield’s Drew making an equally stern charge to the low side of the track, Rowe maintained his line and gave Knowlton ample room in the final corner.

Rowe prevailed by less than a car length over Knowlton, with Drew the same distance back in third.

Mike Rowe, Larry Gelinas, Tracy Gordon and Sam Sessions followed, all a second or less behind the champion. Joe Bessey, Johnny Clark and John Phippen completed the top 10, each one lap behind.

“I used up more track than I wanted to, but I didn’t want to lose this,” said Rowe. “I was going for all I was worth. The track was actually in terrible shape those last three laps.”

Rowe won $34,500 and joined two-time champion Mike Rowe as the only father-son combination to win Oxford’s crown jewel.

Making the finish more improbable, Knowlton said he had a right-side tire go flat as he exited the fourth turn on the last lap.

“I had just enough left to give Ben a good shot coming out,” Knowlton said. “I had a good run, but my car slid up just a smidge. I’m thankful he didn’t wreck me.”

Knowlton only recently secured a motor and hauler in order to make his first start of the season in this race.

“It shows what a class act he is,” Rowe said. “A lot of guys would’ve taken you out over turn four there.”

The reigning Pro All Stars Series champion and point leader, Rowe entered the race as the hottest Pro Stock driver in the region, winning four races this summer in Maine, New Hampshire and Canada prior to the 250.

His history in the race was an obstacle, though.

As a rookie, Rowe ran out of gas with less than three laps remaining in 1996. His team elected to employ a smaller-than-usual fuel cell that night, and Gelinas walked away with an improbable victory.

He was a distant second to Nason in 1999. The next year, he wound up second by the same margin he edged Knowlton this time around.

“I tried all week not to let anything get to me,” said Rowe. “Then I looked up with 25 laps to go and saw Gary and Stevie coming in my mirror.”

How Drew ended up in Rowe’s tire tracks was a matter of some dispute.

Drew held the lead and the preferred inside lane as he and Rowe headed into the fourth turn and looked for the green flag from starter Kenny Tripp.

Both drivers acknowledged that the signal came early, and after Rowe jumped out to a lead of 10 car lengths.

One of racing’s unwritten rules dictates that the leader sets the pace in that situation.

“There’s not much I can say. Everybody saw it, and that’s the call the speedway made,” said Drew.

Rowe said he looked up and saw the green flag before hitting the gas pedal.

“I was surprised,” said Rowe. “I feel bad for Gary.”

An admittedly angry Drew caught Rowe with about 25 laps to go, and their cars touched briefly.

“At that point, I backed right off,” Drew said. “I wasn’t going to win that way.”

Drew also finished third in the race in 1997, the last time Mike Rowe prevailed.

“My tires were pretty much gone, but I gave it all I had,” Drew said. “If the race had been one more lap, I’m not sure any of us would have made it through turn one.”

Rowe, who was introduced to racing by his father and began racing a mini stock car at OPS when he was 16, received his big break when he hooked up with car owners Tom and Eileen Estes before the 1999 True Value 250.

The team finished second in its first venture together and won several races that fall before making its mark in PASS.

As for the driver, weirdness followed his first seven tries in the big race at his home track. Sunday provided a perfect recipe for more, with the newly paved asphalt reportedly breaking up in places and taking a heavy toll on tires.

Rowe stopped twice for service on his Chevrolet, giving up the lead on lap 107 and surrendering third on lap 158.

Eleven caution flags slowed the event, the last when the cars of Billy Whorff, Glen Luce and Shawn Tucker bottlenecked the track in the third corner.

Rowe got on the brakes quickly enough to miss the altercation. Knowlton veered into the dirt just over the turn and beat Rowe back to the start-finish line, but Rowe was restored to the spot.

Weathering the final restart enabled Rowe to win from the pole. He won the first 20-lap qualifying race and shared the front row for the finale with his father, who captured the second sprint.

Mike got the jump on the initial green flag and set the pace for the first 40 circuits. Sam Sessions, Billy Whorff, Gordon, Drew and Knowlton also led the event. The actual race distance turned out to be 360 laps, with 250 contested under green flag conditions as advertised.

In victory lane, Ben Rowe’s car sported a tire doughnut from his dad, administered on the cool-down lap.

“He told me he had to catch me to put a mark on it,” Ben said. “It’s unbelievable. Winning this race after starting next to my dad? You couldn’t script it any better.”

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