OXFORD — Travis Benjamin now has won the same TD Bank 250 that Kyle Busch dominated two years ago. Same event that Kevin Harvick commanded three Julys before that.

The difference couldn’t be more dramatic if you took a panoramic photo of Charlotte Motor Speedway, then plopped it down next to a snapshot of Benjamin’s no-stoplight hometown of Morrill.

“We all have full-time jobs. We work all day, go home and work on the race car all night,” Benjamin said. “Their wives let them stay all night, every night and work on the car.”

Oxford Plains Speedway’s nationally renowned event celebrated its 40th anniversary by loudly, proudly reverting to its early-2000s glory as a super late model race.

Much more quietly — and perhaps it’s a contradiction — the 250 turned back the clock and became everyman’s race once again.

Benjamin, 34, is the Pro All Stars Series champion. He’s a household name to the folks who eat, drink, live and breathe the sport at the local level.

But a star on the level of Mike Rowe, Ben Rowe or Johnny Clark he probably wasn’t, at least to the casual fan.

At least before Sunday night.

In the big picture, this was a little-guy team winning the most enormous race of its life.

“My crew doesn’t get the credit they deserve. They’re my best friends. I’ve had Brian Burgess helping me out. I’ve had Kevin McDaniel. I’ve had Buster Bean,” Benjamin said, rattling off the names of some top, local super late model mechanics. “I’ve had good, good people that know race cars real well working with me. It’s not the same as when you’re best friends with them. I’ve known them my whole life.”

Benjamin bounced around NASCAR Busch North before it became K&N Pro Series East and evolved into a Sprint Cup talent development circuit.

He cycled back to the super late models. Competitive, yes, but it was a mighty struggle to break into the upper echelon. Ben Rowe and Johnny Clark monopolized the PASS championship trophy for a decade.

Watching Clark’s success from a distance inspired Benjamin to get back to his roots.

“You look at Johnny, when he was running so well a couple years ago, it was because he had a good, core group, and that’s what I’ve got,” Benjamin said.

Ryan Leadbetter is in his second year as crew chief. Nate Littlefield is the tire specialist. Kerry Merrifield is car chief. Jim Hayes, the elder statesman, heads up the crucial sponsor search.

Like an old, married couple, the Belfast-area gang can almost complete one another’s sentences. Even if it means a few expletives are thrown around.

“A couple of races ago we were under caution. They were snapping on the radio and I was snapping back at them,” Benjamin said. “Then we went back to green and it was all forgotten. And maybe you can’t get away with that if people aren’t your best friends and you don’t understand each other the way we do.”

They can read the car’s fickle emotions just as fluently.

The team’s work on a lap 145 pit stop — track bar adjustment, four-tire change and refueling — fixed an ill-handling car and put Benjamin at the head of a large group that had come in for service.

He charged from eighth to first in 11 laps.

“I mean, we don’t practice pit stops at all. Last year in the 300 at Beech Ridge we went in first and came out 13th. That kind of lost us the race,” Benjamin said. “The way those guys pitted today, that’s what won us the race. Everybody’s so competitive, there’s so many good cars, that if you get out front it’s so hard to pass.”

And once you’re a TD Bank 250 champion, it’s hard to be viewed as a little guy, ever again.

No matter where you’re from, or what you race, or how your crew puts food on its table.

Kalle Oakes is a staff columnist. His email is [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Oaksie72.


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