PORTLAND – As a new era begins with Sunday’s 34th annual TD Banknorth 250 at Oxford Plains Speedway, drivers from all types of racing are preparing for a new challenge.

For the first time in the event’s rich history, drivers will compete in Late Model stock cars instead of the Pro Stock machines utilized for many years.

For those who run a Late Model on a weekly basis, like Canton’s Travis Adams, this puts the region’s biggest race within their grasp. For drivers like defending race winner Jeremie Whorff, who kept his Pro Stock and competes on a local tour, adapting to the slightly different car before Sunday is priority No. 1.

With this change, interest in the race among Late Model teams around the Northeast has been overwhelming. Thanks to the efforts of American-Canadian Tour (ACT) president Tom Curley to bring universal rules to Late Model racing across New England, their numbers have increased, and many want a piece of this event.

Speedway officials held their annual media luncheon Wednesday, with a large contingent of drivers on hand to discuss their hopes for Sunday’s short-track race.

“I’m very excited about the race this year,” said OPS President Bill Ryan. “I think the number of entries speaks for itself. We have 178 already, and while the critics may wonder how many of them will show up, it reflects how many of these Late Model teams there are across New England.

“If you look at the entry list, the number of champions from across this region is just amazing. I don’t think that anybody can predict a winner this year or the outcome with any level of certainty. With so much talent from so many types of racing, it should be interesting to see how it all unfolds.”

On hand to discuss their chances in Sunday’s big dance were Nextel Cup driver Kevin Lepage, past champions Mike Rowe, Ben Rowe, Jamie Aube and Whorff, and contenders Tim Brackett, Shawn Martin, Joey Polewarczyk, Tommy Ricker, Doug Coombs, Marc Curtis Jr., D.J. Shaw and Adams. Represented were a mix of Late Model drivers, former Pro Stock champions, veterans of NASCAR competition and aspiring young drivers hoping to advance their careers.

Each year, Ryan polls the drivers in attendance on who might win this year’s race if they weren’t the ones rolling into Victory Lane. With the change in car, predictions differed this year, with several well-heeled veterans choosing Adams as the favorite.

“I went up and watched, as a fan, a recent Late Model race up there,” said Ben Rowe, a two-time winner. “The way Travis went out around people in the third lane was unbelievable. He’s obviously hooked up this year with five wins in 10 starts. I think if he gets into the race without any trouble, he’ll be difficult to beat.”

The final tally on votes showed four for Adams, four for three-time 250 winner Mike Rowe, three for ACT champion Jean Paul Cyr, and one for Ben Rowe. Adams would not commit to one driver, saying that “one of the Rowes” will most likely take down the win.

Every year, talk around this race centers on the same three basic issues – the all-important draw, which determines starting positions in the qualifying heats, pit strategy and tire wear. This year’s exception seems to be tire wear, which isn’t as big of an issue with Late Models versus a Pro Stock.

“The eight-inch Goodyear tires we use on a Late Model hold up very well,” said Adams. “They fall off about a half-second in lap times, then stay there. My plan for the race is, when I have to pit for fuel, I’ll get two tires, because fueling time allows that.”

With tire wear not such a concern, drivers hope for a good draw for the heats, which makes their day a whole lot easier and reduces the chance for damage before the race.

“The change in car won’t affect that part at all,” says Mike Rowe. “How you draw really sets the tone for the day, but even if you get a bad one and start out back, you’ve got to use your head. You can’t hurt the car trying to get to the front, because you need to start up front in your consi. It just takes patience all day long; that’s what it takes to win this thing.”

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