PORTLAND — It doesn’t seem to matter if they’re in their 60s, or still in their teens, stock car drivers from around the northeast are busy preparing for this Sunday’s 36th annual TD Banknorth 250 at Oxford Plains Speedway.

While racing has evolved into a young man’s sport at the national level since Jeff Gordon hit the scene in the early 1990s, it’s a mix of rising young stars and seasoned veterans chasing short track racing’s biggest prize.

Speedway officials held their annual pre-race media gathering Wednesday, with no less than nine drivers on hand to discuss their chances. They ranged from 60-something-year-old Al Hammond, just returning to competition after a few years away, to 18-year-old Nick Brown, who came up through Oxford’s Karting series and is a recent Late Model winner.
Joining Hammond and Brown at the head table Wednesday were Ben Ashline, Joey Polewarczyk Jr., Georgia native Michael Pope, Turner residents Glen Luce and Shawn Martin, Ricky Rolfe, and veteran Tim Brackett of Buckfield.
  To kick off Wednesday’s activities, NASCAR Nationwide Series regular Kenny Wallace did a telephone interview. Wallace raced at Oxford back when NASCAR sanctioned the 250, and is more than excited about running this weekend. He will join his nephew Steve Wallace, son of NASCAR champion and 250 Grand Marshall Rusty Wallace, in this year’s field.
  “Do not take Steve Wallace lightly,” Wallace said. “He won the Snowball Derby a couple of years ago. Steve grew up in these cars, and just recently ran a Late Model race at Hickory (NC) Motor Speedway. He’ll probably be more up to speed than I will on Sunday.”

Following the interview with Wallace, track owner Bill Ryan talked about anticipation for this year’s 250, and what he expects as the weekend approaches.

“This race has developed into such a rich tradition over the years,” Ryan said. “It’s been exciting to see how many race teams get geared up for this race. Some of the highlights have been getting guys like Kenny Wallace to come up. In 2004, when Matt Kenseth came up, it was the first time in a long time that anybody in northern New England had NASCAR drivers competing in their premier race. It adds a flair to it, so we’re excited about Sunday.”

A long-standing tradition in this pre-250 gathering has Ryan polling the drivers in attendance, asking each if they couldn’t be the one in Victory Lane Sunday evening, who they thought would win. Of the nine answers, Pole received the most picks with three, followed by Rolfe with two and one each for Wallace, Martin, Travis Adams and New Hampshire native Brad Leighton.

“This race means a lot to all of us,” Rolfe said. “I mean, it’s not something that will ruin my life if I don’t ever win it, but it is big. We all love racing in front of a big crowd, and the place will be packed again on Sunday. The crowd, the big paycheck that Bill puts up, all of it, it’s what makes the Oxford 250 so incredibly huge.”

Brackett returned to competition at Oxford this year after a two-year absence, having stayed with Pro Stocks when Oxford dropped the division. Like Hammond, he converted his old car over to Late Model specs, and has learned how to dial in these sometimes finicky cars. He won a Saturday night feature last month, holding off defending champion Adams for top honors.

“I think we’ve got a pretty good race setup,” Brackett said. “Qualifying is just so important in this race, it really doesn’t matter how well your car is setup if you’re not in the show. We’ll just try to get it the best we can in practice, and hope we make out well in the draw. If we don’t, we’ll be in for a tough challenge.”

Polewarczyk is happy in his role as the pre-race favorite. After winning the ACT New England Dodge Dealers 150 on May 17, the 20-year-old sensation from Hudson, N.H., won the prestigious Vermont Governor’s Cup 150 at Barre’s Thunder Road, and finished second to Leighton last Sunday at Kawartha Speedway in Peterborough, Ontario.

“We do have some confidence going into this race,” Polewarczyk said. “We do have momemtum at Oxford after winning the opener, and our season has gone well so far. We’ve been busy preparing for this race because of what it means to do well here. Everybody knows the Oxford 250 is the most prestigious race around, so if we can put a win there under our belt, it would be a great thing for my career.”

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