Johnny Clark of Hallowell nearly won the Oxford 250 on Sunday night, but the checkered flag wasn’t in the cards. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

OXFORD — If there’s a more painful way to lose an Oxford 250, you’d be hard-pressed to find it.

Getting passed for the lead with less than 25 laps remaining. A flat tire while leading following the final pit stop of the night. Running out of fuel after taking the white flag.

None of them compare to the gut punch Johnny Clark took Sunday night in the closing laps of the 49th annual Oxford 250.

Having recorded five of the seven fastest laps of the race — the other two coming from the race leaders on lap 3 of the 250 — with less than 30 laps remaining, Clark’s night went from heroic to hellish.

It wasn’t so much a gut punch as a butt kick.

Clark’s lead over Nova Scotia’s Cole Butcher had been whittled from 1.2 seconds to less than half a second as Clark tried to negotiate his car through lapped traffic in the final few laps. When Clark ran up to the back of Vermont’s Jimmy Hebert, he slowed suddenly and Butcher’s No. 53 drilled Clark’s rear bumper — sending Clark spinning through turn four and out of the lead.

“I’m in absolute disbelief,” Clark told Racing America following the race. “(Butcher) smelled blood and harpooned me. That’s it. … I feel like we got robbed.”

Clark blended back into traffic out of his spin and restarted in fourth but never challenged for the top spot again.

Butcher, meanwhile, became the first Canadian to win the Oxford 250 since Ontario driver Dave Whitlock in 1995.

“That’s not how I wanted to race Johnny,” Butcher said, having apologized more than once in victory lane for the mishap. “Johnny knows that, and you know what — hopefully, he’ll get over this.”

That’s unlikely.

“The worst part is I can count how many (Oxford 250s) I’ve lost, and it’s way more than the one that we’ve won,” Clark said.

It would have been a storybook win for Clark, and the ovation he would have received would have been well-deserved.

You remember 2020. We all remember 2020, as much as we’ve tried to forget it.

That year, against all odds, Oxford Plains Speedway owner Tom Mayberry and his staff pulled off a full-blown Oxford 250, which Clark won for the first time in his career. But Clark had to climb out of his car in victory lane that night to empty grandstands, a product of the conditions of being able to hold the event in a COVID-ravaged world.

On Sunday, had he been able to close out the final eight laps unscathed, a Clark victory would have been loudly celebrated, the perfect Oxford Plains exclamation point for a seven-time Pro All Stars Series champion with more than 40 career victories on his resume.

Instead of cheers greeting the victor as he exited his car this time around, Butcher drowned in a sea of boos. His apologies did not resonate, either with the fans or with Clark.

Following the checkered flag, as Butcher rolled down the frontstretch toward, Clark drove into the back of Butcher and pushed him all the way past victory lane.

Oxford 250 winner Cole Butcher holds the trophy in front of his No. 53 car after the victory Sunday at Oxford Plains Speedway. Brewster Burns photo

Race officials shooed Clark’s car away from the impending post-race ceremonies. OPS then announced on Monday it had fined Clark $3,000 and docked him 100 points as a result of his post-race actions. In a statement posted to its web site, OPS also said it had considered disqualifying Clark, but ultimately determined a fine and point deduction penalty would suffice. Butcher’s victory will stand.

In 2004, Clark led nearly half the race from the pole before ending up 24th, collected in an accident when a lapped car was wrecked in front of him. The following season, Clark’s still blossoming career appeared poised to explode before three-time Oxford 250 champion Mike Rowe chased him down and passed him late en route to victory.

The sting of becoming the 10th driver to win the Oxford 250 more than once hurt more than any of his prior defeats.

“Absolutely,” Clark said Monday morning. “It’s painful. It’s one that we’ll remember forever. It hurts.”

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