When a driver is a lock for the NASCAR hall of fame, has won races by the hundred, and earned dollars by the million, it’s probably hard to imagine him reciting every intimate detail of a little event he barnstormed in Oxford, Maine, almost half a lifetime ago.

Given a limited forum with a living legend this past week, I didn’t waste the opportunity to test the staying power of the track and the race that meant so much to my not-so-former life.

Kalle Oakes, Sports Columnist

Kyle Busch visited my neighborhood as part of the lead-up to Saturday night’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway. By now, even if you aren’t a gear head, you’ve probably seen the end result on your sports highlight show of choice: Busch settled for second to his older brother, Kurt, by the length of a fender and a door panel in an unforgettable finish that will be used as promotional fodder long after they’re retired.

The younger Busch – often dismissively called “Shrub” because of that status in his younger years – drives for Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota. The latter, lest you consider it a foreign manufacturer, builds the Camry, Avalon and other models 24/7 at its sprawling plant on the north side of Georgetown, Kentucky, population 34,000.

Busch was there to unveil Toyota’s 2020 sedans and headline a meet-and-greet with employees. Prior to that, two television reporters and the local sports editor were given about a five-minute window to ask the requisite questions about the track, his cars, his season and the like.

So, naturally, I did the thing that evokes eye-rolls and asked Busch what he remembers about Oxford Plains Speedway and the Oxford 250, a riddle he finally solved in his third try, eight summers ago.

And wouldn’t you know it, after the obligatory, autopilot sound bites, the winner of a record 206 NASCAR national races (Monster Energy Cup, Xfinity Series and Gander Outdoors Truck Series) perked up.

“I loved Oxford. It was always fun. It was a cool track to go up and race around,” Busch said. “Busch North raced there years ago, and NASCAR was a part of that place. It’s kind of changed over the years. The last time I was there was 2010, 2011? I won it finally.”

Yes, it was 2011, The agate page says Busch defeated Vermont’s Nick Sweet and Austin Theriault of Fort Kent. Theriault, then a tender 17 years of age, now is set to make his Cup debut at New Hampshire Motor Speedway next weekend.

Those who attended Busch’s victory and maintain an encyclopedic memory of all things 250 remember him better as yet another guy who broke Jeff Taylor’s heart at his home track showcase. The Farmington native, nine times a track champion at Oxford but forever the bridesmaid in the big show, led the most laps that day before Busch caught him in traffic and made the winning pass with 22 laps to go. Tire wear sent Taylor reeling to a sixth-place result.

It wasn’t the first time Busch brushed closely with OPS royalty. In his maiden voyage of 2005 – when he would have been a year too young to drink the celebratory champagne, anyhow – Busch arrived at the track in a t-shirt and jeans on a Tuesday morning and made fast friends with Turner’s Mike Rowe.

Busch was to drive a borrowed car as Rowe’s teammate in the race. As the first order of business, Rowe took Busch, competing out of the same shop as Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson at the time, around the 3/8-mile oval for a 15-mile-per-hour reconnaissance mission in his pickup truck.

Whether the young lion listened politely or filed away every scintilla of information we’ll never truly know, but within a few laps of strapping into his ride of the week, Busch logged lap times that would have been at the top of a Saturday or Sunday speed chart.

His draw for starting position wasn’t hospitable, so Busch qualified for the main event by finishing second in a consolation race. It could have been worse: Rowe raced his way into the show through the last-chance, non-qualifiers’ race.

Neither wasted any time forging to the front.

“I was one of the fastest guys, had a shot to win, came down for the final pit stop, got a lug nut stuck in the caliper and ended up blowing a left front tire,” Busch recalled.

Busch fought through that frustration to finish sixth. Rowe won, for a record-tying third time, each in a different decade.

Rowe praised Busch effusively and said he would set out to lure the youngster back to the battle royal off Route 26 the next summer. Fifty-two weeks later, sure enough, there was Busch, bidding for the lead in the latter stages.

Leaders weren’t long for the world in the 2006 edition of the 250. They either wrecked or heard gremlins coming out from under the hood. Jeremie Whorff took advantage as an underdog winner.

“The second year it blew up just as I was going for the lead,” Busch said. “One of my friends from up there sent me a picture of the exact moment it was blowing up, with the flames shooting out and everything.”

OPS then-owner Bill Ryan decided to shake up the mix and pursue other headliners in the years that followed. Kevin Harvick won a rain-delayed 2008 version. Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski, on the flip side, showed up their years and struggled.

When the call came Busch’s way once again, his third trip north was the charm.

“I had some bad luck the first couple years but was finally able to put it all together and win,” Busch said. “I love going up there. I’ve still got a lot of friends up there.”

Oxford is on a laundry list of immense short track wins for a superstar who is a throwback in that regard. Busch also owns two victories at the Snowball Derby in Pensacola, Florida, plus trophies from legendary events in Winchester (Indiana), Eldora (Ohio) and Slinger (Wisconsin).

Those days are almost gone for Busch, but he doesn’t stray from the roots. He sounds as if he’d love to tackle the 250 again if the schedule, and his life as a 34-year-old family man, were less hectic. Younger drivers now chase such coveted, regional checkered flags under the banner of Kyle Busch Motorsports.

“I’d like to be able to have a chance to be able to do some more of that stuff, but there’s just not a lot of weekday races, and not a lot of people calling and inviting me up anymore,” Busch said with a laugh. “Maybe it’s because I’ve been there, done that, I don’t know.”

He did it, all right. Whoever wins the 46th edition of the Oxford 250 next month – more than likely a weekend warrior – gets to be on a list with one of the greatest of all time at his craft.

Rest assured that the GOAT understands and truly appreciates the accomplishment.

Kalle Oakes spent 27 years in the Sun Journal sports department and also was track announcer at OPS from 2005 to 2009. He is now sports editor of the Georgetown (Kentucky) News-Graphic. Keep in touch with him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @oaksie72.


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