The droplet of gasoline that Butch Lindley and Ben Rowe’s potential winning cars couldn’t digest. The finicky tire that dashed independent racer and Oxford Plains Speedway lifer Alan Wilson’s dreams. A disappearing sun that turns an afternoon also-ran into an evening rocket.

Six intangible elements make the 250 almost impossible to predict while giving the race its unique flavor. Here’s a closer look at some of the things you can’t afford to overlook:

The draw

It’s a format that race fans love, and one that drivers reluctantly accept but not-so-silently dread.

Track officials count the number of cars that have gone through technical inspection, add four or five to account for stragglers, and throw that many numbered poker chips into a deep bucket.

The ensuing lottery at the pre-race drivers’ meeting determines where each driver will start his first-round heat race.

“The dreaded draw,” Shawn Martin of Turner said. “It’s still dreaded. One of my crew members was joking this week. He said, ‘You’ve got to find someone else to pick for you.’ But no, I wouldn’t put that on anybody.”

D.J. Shaw tried to qualify for his first Oxford 250 in 2007 at age 17.

The car was quick in practice all weekend. New late model specifications appeared to level the playing field at the time, making Shaw a legitimate candidate to become the youngest 250 winner in history.

“It was one of those things,” Shaw said. “I drew 99, and I never recovered.”

Superstition reigns at the draw.

Vanna Brackett is either too nervous or too wise to pull her own number. When the race director calls Brackett’s name, she will send Steve Alexander of her Buckfield-based family team to the center of the circle.

“He’s usually pretty good at drawing,” she said. “That way if it’s a bad number I won’t get mad at myself. I can get mad at Steve.”

Brackett’s father, Tim, won’t be surprised if that happens. He paints the picture of Alexander as Tough Luck Chuck.

The two-time OPS weekly champion prefers to set fortune on his own shoulders. One year he relented.

“I normally do it myself, but Steve was telling me how great he was going to draw and I said, ‘Go ahead then.’ And he let me down,” Brackett said with a laugh.

There’s always a method to the madness, and for some competitors there’s even a technique to the act of acquiring a number.

Martin uses his ritual to add some drama to the occasion.

“So many years I always picked the first pill I came to,” Martin said. “Now I reach in, pick the first pill, drop it and pull out another one. It still doesn’t work.”

Other than the chip that reads ‘POLE,’ nobody in the huddle really knows what the numbers mean until the qualifying lineups are written on a giant dry-erase board.

After the drawing, race officials put the names in order and divide evenly by the number of heats, six. Because of the extra chips, there is some minor displacement involved. In other words, if there are 72 cars in the mix, 13 could live up to its evil reputation, or it could be a godsend that puts a driver on pole for the second qualifier.

“I immediately start doing the math,” Martin said. “I think last year there were three or four extra pills, so we were trying to do the math and figure out the probability of one being missing in between.”

Pro All Stars Series drivers draw for their heat race starting position every week.

Defending race winner and tour standout Travis Benjamin doesn’t stick to one strategy. Some weeks he performs the thankless task of pulling the chip. Other times he delegates the duty.

In the case of the 250, there’s some reverse superstition at work. Crew chief Ryan Leadbetter received the assignment a year ago. Benjamin wound up starting last in his heat.

“He’d better redeem himself,” Benjamin joked. “The draw, it is important and it isn’t. If you’ve got a good car, it shouldn’t matter. It’s kind of the cream always rises to the top. But our heat last year we drew dead last. Before that race I was hyperventilating. I was so nervous. I wanted to get in through the heat race.”

The heat races

Get in, Benjamin did, racing from 13th to second in 20 laps.

NASCAR star Kyle Busch made a worst-to-first charge in his qualifier to set the stage for his victory in 2011. And that was in a late model car. The more powerful super late models presumably make it easier to overtake lesser competition.

“It worked out good, but I was very nervous, put it that way,” Benjamin said. “It makes the day so much easier if you can get in through your heat race. You kind of start close to the front, obviously.”

The winners of heats one through six comprise the first three rows of the 250 starting grid, in order. Second-place finishers fill the next three rows.

Only the top four finishers transfer from each heat. Get shuffled to the consolation round and your best possible starting position in the main event is 25th.

“If you have to go through the consi, it can be done. I’m not saying it can’t be,” Benjamin said. “But when you start 20th or 30th, you’re already half a lap behind.”

Drivers — especially those from the southern United States, where time trials are a tradition — are fond of that format for major events.

The drawback? They’re fan-unfriendly. OK, boring. Even NASCAR did away with years of one-at-a-time qualifying and introduced its new “knockout” procedure this season.

“I liked it when they started PASS and it was time trials to set the heat races, because it put you in with guys you normally run good with. You set your own fate,” Shaw said. “But I like (only) heat races for the 250. That’s the history of it, and it’s part of the strategy.”

Having attempted to qualify for every 250 since the early 1990s, Tim Brackett has lined up just about everywhere for the green flag in his all-important heat race.

As someone perennially near the top of Oxford’s weekly point standings, he’s also accustomed to a handicap system that relegates him to the rear of the field. Seeing all that traffic with so much on the line isn’t the end of the world.

“Unless you’ve got a really stacked heat,” he cautioned. “If you get three or four fast cars and a couple of good Saturday night cars, it’s a pretty tough row from the rear. But at least those good cars will be out of it for the consi. Get what you can get.”

After the initial draw, everything is set by the finish in the preceding qualifying round.

So those seemingly trifling side-by-side battles for sixth or seventh position aren’t such a minor detail. The outcome sets the grid for the consolation round, where the cut is less kind — only the top three advance to the main event from each.

Brackett’s daughter learned the routine in her rookie 250 voyage of 2013.

“I was in a qualifying spot when I got wrecked in the heat race,” said Vanna Brackett, who is attempting to join Karen Schulz as the only women to start the main event. “You have to get good starts. Don’t let them push you around. If they’re going to wreck you, wreck them first.”

The last chance qualifier is a scheduled 50-lap affair, with only the winner making it to the 250.

By then, that survivor’s tire supply is well worn, and nerves frayed. Ricky Craven began building his legend by winning the LCQ and briefly leading the main event in 1989. Mike Rowe trumped that by winning both races in 2005. But such rags-to-riches stories are rare.

“I saw Craven at Loudon (at the recent NASCAR Sprint Cup race). My wife brought up a picture of Craven, me and Blaine Chapman in non-qualifiers’ victory lane,” Tim Brackett said. “I pulled that out and said, ‘Remember that?’ He said, ‘Yup.’ I said, ‘You remember you beat the bumper off me?’ He laughed. He said, ‘I remember I jumped the start, too.’

“If you get that far,” Brackett punctuated the story, “that’s a bad day.”

Track position

Benjamin hinted at the primary danger of not achieving a favorable starting position. At 3/8-mile Oxford, if you lose a lap to the leader under green, barring an accident or an odd pit stop sequence, it is almost impossible to regain it. Mike Barry, the 1982 winner, was a memorable exception.

In 1988, with a record 47-car grid building expectations of early carnage, the first 100 laps ticked away without incident. More recent 250s have produced 50- and 60-lap green flag runs at the beginning, writing just about everyone in the back half of the field out of the script before the movie really got started.

“Track position is huge, but it’s not a game-changer. We’ve been able to come from the back before if we played our cards right,” Martin said. “If you can get the track position and you can kind of conserve, that’s definitely where you want to position yourself. If not, you’ve got to pedal it early and get up on the wheel and try to get that track position before that first pit stop.”

Of course, there also is a danger of falling into a trap and burning up tires and other equipment in an effort to compensate for a lousy starting position.

That’s thought to be where drivers with touring experience have a decided edge over local drivers, only three of whom — Gary Drew (2001), Scott Robbins (2002) and Jeremie Whorff (2006) — have won the 250.

The typical main event on a Friday or Saturday night in Maine is a 50-lap sprint. The point leader who starts deep in a 28-car field is hardwired to go all-out from the drop of the green.

At most PASS tour stops, any driver who wins a race can’t start in the top 10 for the remainder of the season. Benjamin has been under that handicap since winning at Oxford in May.

While those restrictions aren’t in place for the 250, having the experience is a distinct advantage in a race where a measured approach is preferred. Benjamin didn’t lead the 2013 race until after his mid-race pit stop.

“You’ve got to be patient, but you’ve got to go. You can’t just sit around there and wait,” Benjamin said. “I do think if you’re running out of the top 10, your pit strategy changes where you’ve got six (remaining) tires. If you’re not a top-five car, I think you can play a little pit strategy and get it so that at the end of the race you can be up front.”

Drivers at the rear of the field quietly hope for an eventful race, as long as they’re not the ones directly involved in the fray.

Frequent yellow flags reduce the risk of being passed by the leader and wiped out of contention. And if cars drop out or get spun or crashed out of the way, that leaves fewer to pass at full speed. Those numerous appearances by the pace car contributed heavily to two of Mike Rowe’s record-sharing three victories.

“The whole complexion of the 250 changes,” Martin said. “It’s a totally different race for everybody. You’ll see guys that are conservative on the early runs. You’ll see guys that get aggressive. You just kind of have to run your own race and see how things play out.”

Pit strategy

When to make the drive down pit road for fuel and tires is an inextricable part of the 250’s mystique.

One thing is certain: Any race-winning pit stop will happen under yellow flag conditions. Pit under green, and your chances of victory are nil.

Some drivers will “short pit,” attempting an early stop (perhaps between laps 75 and 100), especially if they start near the rear of the field. This theoretically cycles them ahead of the next wave of leaders that will pit during the first caution flag after the halfway point.

Drivers who tour with PASS are accustomed to 250-lap races and the dice-rolling element. That doesn’t mean they ever get used to it.

“I think I’ve lost the Beech Ridge 300 twice just on strategy,” Shaw said. “I always get nervous coming into a strategy race. It’s not our usual thing. I think we’ve run a few more long races and got a little more experience calling the race and a better idea at least of what to expect.”

There is no set-in-stone strategy for winning Oxford’s endurance test.

Past winners have pitted once. Others have come in twice. One popular variation in recent years has been drivers who pit twice during the same caution period, changing left-side tires the first time and right-side tires the second.

It’s a tap dance that, again, puts local teams with volunteer personnel and less funding at a disadvantage.

“You’ve got to let it play out and see how the race is going. Last year going into the weekend I wanted to pit twice, but we had such a dominant car that it was ‘don’t do anything out of the ordinary.’ We played it conservative,” said Joey Doiron of Berwick, the 2013 runner-up. “If you’re running 10th or so with 50 to go and you’ve got a set of tires, you’ve got to do it. You didn’t come here to run 10th. It might come back to bite you, but you’ve got to put yourself in position.”

The Bracketts’ resources will be divided among five 250 hopefuls: Tim, Vanna and T.J. Brackett, Kyle Treadwell and Kyle DeSouza.

“I had tires I didn’t use last year. I probably could have used them, but my pit crew was so inexperienced that I figured I was better off out there,” Tim Brackett said. “Buckfield isn’t that big. We just haven’t got the bodies that do it weekly. We’ll help each other. I’ve got two guys usually. T.J.’s got a couple of guys. But if one of us gets wrecked, they’re all in there.”

In the week leading up to his near-upset victory in 2004, Wilson told the story of his team gathering at crew member and fellow racer Darren Bernier’s house for pit crew practice. Bernier was the choice because he was the only member of the MPH (Minot-Paris-Hebron) team who owned a paved driveway.

Martin’s team retired a similar ritual.

“In years past we did a pit stop two weeks before the race. We don’t do it anymore. So many times we had a lug nut cross up or something, and it didn’t even matter. I have the same core guys who have pitted the car, so they’re used to it,” Martin said. “Every year we’ll discuss different pit strategies, and not once have we ever used them. The complexity of the race and the way we’re running changes everything. You kind of have to adapt. We don’t pay much attention to what everybody else is doing. We kind of do our own thing, and the cards fall where they fall.”

Tires and temperatures

Tire allowances have changed at the 250 many times in its history, mostly as a concession to the economy.

After being allowed to use 12 race tires a year ago, teams are permitted 10 on Sunday. Qualify through a first-round heat, and you must start the main event on the same rubber.

The fact that 10 is not evenly divided by four suggests that some teams will gamble on changing two while others choose four at some point during the race.

“That definitely shakes it up a bit. We tend to not be good on two (new) tires,” Shaw said. “We’ve got some ideas and we’re going to see where it goes. It would be great to do like Travis did and take four once. We’ll probably see where we are when the time comes to pit.”

Oxford also is a notoriously temperature-sensitive track. Having the right set-up to show the way in a qualifying race at 2:30 p.m. guarantees nothing when the money is on the line at 7:45 or 8:15.

The track hasn’t been repaved since 2003. While that might lead the casual fan to assume the surface is harder on tires these days, veteran drivers believe it has gone in the opposite direction.

“I found it was way more abrasive when it was new. It put a lot of heat on the tires,” Martin said. “It’s kind of an equalizer now. The track changes week to week as far as the lines go. One week the grooves are pretty equal. The next week you come back and the bottom is terrible and the top is good. We have a set-up that works really well when the sun goes down, but we’ve still got to work on our daytime stuff.”

Martin also is concerned at how a huge variety of tire compounds — seven other touring divisions were scheduled to compete on either Friday, Saturday or Sunday — will affect the super late model set-ups.

Neither Benjamin nor Doiron saw a drop-off in performance when early leader Cassius Clark pitted for tires at around lap 200 in 2013. In fact, they continued to pull away.

“We were so good throughout the whole run that being ahead of those by 10 or so positions, by the time they cleared those cars, nothing was going to stop us,” Doiron said.

“I think we came in seventh or eighth, and we came back out seventh or eighth. Everybody in front of me had old tires on, so in 10 laps we were leading,” added Benjamin, who made his lone stop at lap 145. “After that we knew we were going to be good. Everything worked out as we planned.”

Bonus money

Bob Bahre founded the Oxford showcase in 1974 as a 200-lap race with what was then a weighty winner’s share of $4,000.

The next year, Bahre added 50 laps with the stated goal of requiring a pit stop. Since yellow-flag laps do not count toward the total, it almost always works out that way. Geoff Bodine was the most recent winner to go the distance without service, and he ran out of gas on his 1980 cooldown lap.

Bahre added perhaps the most enticing bait of all in 1981, furnishing bonus money to the leader of each green-flag lap. That factor has been in play ever since, growing rapidly to its modern rate of $100 per lap.

Jeff Taylor used that plan to accumulate more than $24,000 in 1995, almost equal to the present-day winner’s share. But Dave Whitlock won the race and went home with what was then a guaranteed $50,000 windfall.

Other short track legends — Dick McCabe, Ed Howe, Billy Clark and Brad Leighton among them — led laps by the dozen before watching the big prize slip away at the finish. McCabe would get his vindication in 1988.

Conventional wisdom says the temptation is greatest for local teams, many of whom spend more than $5,000 just to enter the 250 and compete every weekend all summer while barely matching that cumulative total. But touring drivers frequently are the first to bring it up.

“Last year if I’d pushed the button earlier in the race and led more laps, I’d have won a lot more money. Our car was so good that I didn’t care how many laps we led. I just wanted to win the race,” Doiron said. “If you don’t have a car that you feel like can win, then you want to get lap money. Last year I took the more conservative approach and it paid off. We still doubled what it cost us to go to the race. Whenever you go to the track and make money, it’s a good day.”

Benjamin pocketed $33,500 for his victory after leading 85 laps.

Joey Polewarczyk Jr.’s domination in 2012 netted him $45,500. It was the most lucrative day since Ralph Nason set the pace for a record 214 circuits, including the final one, in 1998.

Bonuses or not, history shows that Bahre set the bar precisely when he settled on the number 250 in ’75.

“The trophy we’ve got has all the names on it, which is awesome. But I go and look and think about the names that aren’t on it. There’s a lot of awesome drivers that have never won it,” Benjamin said. “It’s pretty emotional for my whole family. I grew up going to that race just wanting to be part of it. A lot of people never get to be part of it. It’s not that they’re not capable. It’s just everything has to go right.”

Tangible, or otherwise.


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