Outside looking in

And they say there's no outside groove at Oxford Plains Speedway.

Reigning track champion Travis Adams would probably beg to differ. Adams started in the back of the field in the first of 2 40-lap features Saturday night and passed all but one car on the outside in his march to victory lane. He followed that up by passing more cars in the outside groove -- and not just back-markers, but true top-5 machines -- to finish second in the nightcap to Don Wentworth.

What's encouraging, especially with the Oxford 250 only a few weeks away now, was that Adams wasn't alone. Shawn Martin, Ricky Rolfe and Doug Coombs, among others, were all fast on the outside. It reminded me of the early to mid-1990s, when everyone seemed willing and able to work both inside and out.

Other feature winners Saturday at OPS included Jim Childs in the Mini Stocks and Glen Henderson going flag-to-flag in the Strictly Stock 100. The win of the night went to Jake Burns in the Sport Truck 20-lapper, as he rolled it 3-wide off turn four to lead for the first time all night at the checkered flag. Amazing, gutsy move.

PASS pits overfloweth

According to one report out of Unity Raceway on Saturday, the pits were more full for a test session for the 4 northern PASS divisions than they've been for any weekly show at the track in recent years.

There were no transponders given out because the tech shack wasn't open (Saturday was simply a test day for the North Series, Outlaws, Modifieds and Sportsmen), so no official practice times were kept. Sounds like the usual suspects -- Johnny Clark, Mike Rowe and Cassius Clark -- were among the quickest of the Super Late Models, though. Scott Chubbuck, driving for Corey Hight in his Hight Chevrolet-sponsored ride, was also fast in practice. Most recent Unity race winner Ben Rowe was working his way up to speed as the practice sessions passed by.

Johnny Clark was so happy with his car, he skipped out on the final three sessions of Saturday. He loaded up the No. 54 and was back in Farmingdale before testing was over.

Beating a dead horse

I know, I know. Everyone and their mother has chimed in, but a slow day here in the Maine haze got me to thinking.
For all the problems with Cup qualfying these days -- the top-35 lock-ins, the lack of excitement in time trialing, the unfair inspection process giving preference to top teams -- there's one thing that really hasn't been said. Why not take a page out of the Formula 1 book?
Watching qualifying for the F1 "cars" from Indy today, I thought -- what a great format! Knockout qualifying -- three rounds in which teams advance into a 10-car race for the pole. Why couldn't it work for Cup?
First session is 20 minutes, giving everybody a shot to take as many laps as they can in that time. Slowest 10 are out -- and the cars that are going home are in that group. Then do the same thing for the top 30, cutting the session to 15 minutes, and filling out starting grid spots 21 through 30. Another 15-minute session, and you're left with the top 10. Give them 10 minutes, and arrange them on the grid according to their 1 fastest lap in the session.
It'll work at every track -- on road courses, on restrictor plate tracks, on short tracks, on cookie-cutters.

PASS testing at Unity

The PASS North Series cars are testing at Unity Raceway in preparation for Sunday's running of the DNK Select 150.

The series last visited the tricky little track buried in the heart of central Maine last fall, when they concluded the 2006 season by welcoming Ben Rowe to victory lane and handing Johnny Clark his second PASS championship.

It's one of my favorite divisions to watch -- and to cover -- because I think those Super Late Models on these kind of little bullrings are just about as good as racing gets. Anywhere. But I also got to thinking about what teams can get from testing a day early at a place like Unity.

The track has not changed in years, and drivers like Rowe and Clark have been around there enough to know what to expect. My suspicion is that, for the teams, keeping up with the changes to the cars and their technology is the hardest thing now.

Reminds me, I'll have to track Johnny down and see what he knows...


Stewart will camp out

Tony Stewart has entered the Camping World 200 at New Hampshire International Speedway on June 30. Stewart will drive the No. 33 Old Spice Chevrolet owned by fellow Nextel Cup driver Kevin Harvick.

The Camping World 200 will be the second NASCAR Busch Series race that Tony has entered at New Hampshire. Stewart finished 2nd in the Gumout Long Life Formula 200 in May of 1998. He also ran in a Whelen Modified Tour event at the track last July.

For Stewart, who owns 2 Cup Series wins at NHIS, the key to success on the flat 1.058-mile oval is simple.

“It's just a matter of keeping a well-balanced car all day,” Stewart said. “It seems like you can have bad track position, but if you have a car that drives well, you can drive your way to the front."

NASCAR's rain dance

NASCAR loves to say that it's working in the "best interest of the fans," but I don't buy it.

Two pet peeves from me here, folks.

The first is when they line the field up behind the pace car following some inclement weather and begin a race by running the field under the combined green and yellow flags to continue the track's drying process. Then NASCAR applauds itself for doing it "for the fans." You know, because all those people paid money to see the cars turn laps at caution speed.

If they wanted that, they'd go see a Busch East Series race.

My other, bigger pet peeve is what we saw last Sunday at Pocono. Starting a race that traditionally takes all of four hours to run from start to finish after 5 p.m. local time is unacceptable. Turning around and telling me it's for the fans is embarrassing.

NASCAR started that race last Sunday with one intention and one intention only, and it had nothing to do with the fans. NASCAR wanted to get to lap 100, call it a day and get its teams back to North Carolina and beyond.

But, they'll tell you, at least the fans got to see the race on Sunday.

Poppycock. They didn't see a race. They saw a rain dance.

Hey, fans are smarter these days. Most (most, I said, not all) take Monday off after a race when they can -- to allow for rainouts and added travel time. A NASCAR race should be an experience, and many people plan vacations around these races well in advance.

Don't tell me that when you booked that trip to Pocono in the winter that you were just hoping to see "half a race" for that 100 bucks you each shelled out. If it's me, I'd much rather come back at 11 a.m. on Monday and see the whole race I both planned on seeing and paid to see.

Readying for a Sunday nap

Yeah, what the world needs now is more stock car racing on a big, 2-mile, D-shaped oval. Give me a ticket to that race at Michigan this weekend, and I'm praying for a Pocono repeat.

You know, just get me to lap 101 and send me the heck home.

I'm amazed that people actually pay money to watch races with cars spread out by a couple of seconds per position, just coasting around the track at 190 mph like it's some sort of organized practice session. Not to mention that Michigan International Speedway is infamous for its horrendous traffic logjams following the day's racing, or that it always seems to be about 110 degrees when they race there.

I just don't think these places make for good racing whatsoever, and it's amazing that they build more like them. Is it any wonder that it's a struggle to sell tickets at California, which is a relatively new facility on the NASCAR scene, but Bristol, Richmond and Martinsville continue to sell out?



Coombs passes '250' test

Doug Coombs of Livermore Falls is a part-time competitor in a Late Model at Oxford Plains Speedway, but the 49-year-old driver is feeling pretty good about his prospects in next month’s TD Banknorth 250 at the track.

Coombs ran inside the top five for most of last Sunday’s L-A Harley-Davidson 100, making a move to third place with 10 laps remaining as his car came to life late. For Coombs, though, the knowledge that he’s finally had a good daylight run at Oxford was more important than the $1,200 check he received for finishing third.

“This was a big deal for us,” said Coombs, who said he will run several weekly races at the track between now and the 250 on July 22. “Qualifying for the 250 is (in the afternoon), and we usually don’t run very good here in this kind of weather. This was good.”

Read the entire story in today's Kennebec Journal:


Drink up, the party's starting

At first I thought it was going to be the end of Budweiser's relationship with Dale Earnhardt Jr. when the latter made the move to Hendrick Motorsports. The more I think about it, though, the more I think Budweiser and Earnhardt will be cracking cold ones together for a very long time to come.

Couple of things:

First, Budweiser and Hendrick have a relationship, going back to the days when it was Ken Schrader and Ricky Craven in Rick Hendrick's No. 25 Chevys sponsored by Budweiser, and Craven actually drove the No. 50 for a time during a 50th anniversary promotion. Second, Hendrick seemed to leave that door wide open during Wednesday's introductory press conference.

Hendrick said sponsorship hadn't even been considered yet for Earnhardt's new ride, for fear of leaks to the media that a Hendrick-Earnhardt deal was imminent.

"I guess my first responsibility is to (current sponsors), and we've got to look at how the teams are going to look at the end of the year going into next year and what spots on those cars are available and where they want to be," Hendrick said. "We do have some space but we have sponsors in place. ... We have to wait until we got this deal done and then we'll look at what their commitments are and what our commitments are, and we'll make it all mesh and we hopefully will get that done here in the next few months."

Furthermore, Budweiser reps released a statement Wednesday suggesting they don't believe their time with Earnhardt is through, either.

"Dale Jr. is an excellent ambassador for the sport and our company, and we look forward to exploring options with Hendrick Motorsports and JR Motorsports to continue Budweiser’s relationship with him as he enters this new stage of his racing career," said Tony Ponturo, a marketing rep for Anheuser-Busch.

Methinks Budweiser will find a way to deck that new Earnhardt ride out in red and black with its logos plastered over the hood and quarter panels.

Now we'll find out for sure

Sure, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has 17 career Nextel Cup Series wins, but the measure of a man with the surname of Earnhardt is always in his championships.

As you're well aware, Junior has zero right now, and, as you're also well aware, he decided to depart Dale Earnhardt Inc. because he wants to win a Nextel Cup. Enter car owner Rick Hendrick, stage right.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s detractors pointed out the week-to-week inconsistency over the course of his 8 1/2-year Cup career as one of the main reasons he's been incapable of winning the big prize. They've also looked at the way he's surrounded himself with his family, and, of course, they've measured him against the work of his late father.

Junior's supporters have talked about the perceived lack of equipment he's received at DEI, about the growing pains all young drivers must go through, about Tony Eury Sr. or Tony Eury Jr. or Theresa Earnhardt holding his career back from reaching the next level.

Beginning with next February's Daytona 500, we're going to find out for sure just how good Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in the seat of a race car. Sponsorship, car number, team alignments will all be worked out, and you can be sure for a driver as marketable and popular as Earnhardt, it will all be to his benefit and liking. Think: No. 5 Budweiser Chevrolet Impala SS with a hand-picked crew chief running the ship.

Earnhardt's going to be with a team that's won six Cup series championships over the years (4 for Jeff Gordon, 1 each for Jimmie Johnson and Terry Labonte), has won 10 of 14 races this year and seems to have both restrictor plate racing and the Car of Tomorrow licked. Never will Earnhardt find himself in a better position than he will next season.

Sure, if he fails, his supporters will say it's because he was third on the Hendrick depth chart. If he wins it all, his detractors will say it's only because he's with the New York Yankees of the NASCAR world.

But the bottom line, if your name is Earnhardt, is championships. In the end, after all, they don't ask how -- they only ask, how many?

Looking ahead

Now that it's June, the racing schedule seems to get busier and busier every weekend. Unity Raceway and Oxford Plains Speedway will be the busiest of all over the next several days, with Unity opening its gates for three straight days. Oxford will pack it all into one busy night.

Unity holds its regular weekly program on Friday night (7:30 p.m.), then opens the track for practice to the PASS divisions on Saturday afternoon. On Sunday, the PASS North Series runs the DNK Select 150 (1:30 p.m.) -- the highlight of a PASS show featuring all 4 of its northern divisions, including the Outlaw Late Models, Modifieds and Sportsmen.

Oxford has two Late Model features on tap Saturday night (6:30 p.m.), plus a 100-lap Strictly Stock main. Wiscasset Raceway teams battle for double points in all divisions the same evening (6 p.m.).

Beech Ridge Motor Speedway's Saturday card is highlighted by a 50-lap Wildcat shootout, and Speedway 95 gives the Limited Sportsman class a 50-lapper of its own.

We'll have coverage of the PASS action here and in the papers...


Class of the field

No surprise in the latest Unity Raceway point standings.

It's been a 2-car show for most of the spring in the track's Super Street division, with Mark Dodge of Anson and Brad Bellows of China the class of the field from the 107-lap main event that opened the season there weeks ago.

Currently, Dodge owns a 10-point lead over Bellows. Hal Stratton of Belgrade is 52 points behind Bellows in third. In a weekly field averaging fewer thana dozen cars, Dodge and Bellows -- both of whom have Super Late Model experience -- could probably both start and park their cars for 3 straight weeks and still have an advantage over Stratton.

This place needs more cars. In a division that costs so relatively little to run by todays standards, it's mind-boggling that more guys don't turn out -- especially because it's the only track in Maine running on Friday nights.

Where have all the cowboys gone?

Lenox 300 weekend schedule

NASCAR has already released the schedule of on-track activities for the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series Lenox 300 weekend at New Hampshire International Speedway. Here's a rundown for the weekend, which cranks up just 2 weeks from tomorrow:

THURSDAY, June 28:
11:15 a.m - Whelen Modified Tour practice (1 hour, 25 minutes)
12:50 p.m. - Busch East Series practice (1 hour, 30 minutes)
2:35 p.m. - Whelen Modified Tour practice (10 minutes)
2:50 p.m. - Whelen Modified Tour, qualifying for New England 100
4:30 p.m. - Busch East Series, qualifying for New England 125
FRIDAY, June 29:
9:40 a.m. - Busch Series practice (1 hour, 10 minutes)
11:20 a.m. - Busch Series rookie practice (30 minutes)
12 noon - Nextel Cup Series practice (1 hour, 30 minutes)
1:45 p.m. - Busch Series final practice (1 hour, 15 minutes)
3:10 p.m. - Nextel Cup Series, qualifying for Lenox 300
5:10 p.m. -- Busch East Series, New England 125
SATURDAY, June 30:
8:30 a.m. - Whelen Modifed Tour final practice (25 minutes)
9 a.m. - Nextel Cup Series practice (50 minutes)
10:05 a.m. - Busch Series, qualifying for Camping World 200
11:45 a.m. - Nextel Cup Series final practice (1 hour)
1:10 p.m. - Whelen Modified Tour, New England 100
3 p.m. - Busch Series, Camping World 200
SUNDAY, July 1:
2:30 p.m. - Nextel Cup Series, Lenox 300

NHIS next stop for Busch East teams

Father’s Day weekend is an "off" weekend for NASCAR Busch East Series teams, although few will be taking time off. The series’ next race is the New England 125 at New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon, N.H., on Friday, June 29.

NHIS is a favorite stop for the series drivers and teams.

The 1.058-mile superspeedway proudly serves as "home turf" for the series, having hosted 46 events since opening in 1990. The Bahre family, led by Bob Bahre and his son, Gary, operators of NHIS, helped NASCAR establish the original "NASCAR Busch Grand National North Series" in 1987. They hosted six series events that year, when they operated Oxford Plains Speedway. Those events served as the foundation of the series.

When the Bahres opened NHIS in 1990, they brought their affection for the series with them, and became the first superspeedway to host stand-alone NASCAR Busch East Series events. The "modern era" NHIS events set the stage for growing a series the Bahres helped establish at their former .333-mile paved track in Maine.

This year, the track hosts a pair of NASCAR Busch East Series events on June 29 and Sept. 14. The events play out in front of two of the highest-paying, largest-attended events for the series each year.

-- Courtesy NASCAR PR

NASCAR personalities react to Junior's move

Here's a sampling of reactions to Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s move to Hendrick Motorsports for 2008:

BRIAN FRANCE, chairman and CEO of NASCAR: "Today’s announcement of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s move to Hendrick Motorsports is indeed an important announcement for this season and beyond, and it should be noted that high-profile partnerships have always been a part of NASCAR’s competitive history. There have been so many great partnerships involving people of great character and ability. We’re proud of what they have brought to our sport. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has always said that first and foremost, he wants to win a NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series championship. We wish him the best of luck."

RUSTY WALLACE, former Cup Series champion and current ESPN analyst: "I can’t think of anything at all that’s bigger. He hit a home run and hit it out of the ballpark. His father always loved Rick Hendrick and had a great admiration for him. With Junior finding that he can be in a car with points, he’s assured that he’s in all the races next year. You’ll never risk any problems whether it rains or you have a blown engine that can keep you out of a race. I think he could have done well at Richard Childress next season, but there was one problem – he wouldn’t have had points headed into the 2008 season. Rick Hendrick has amazing integrity and is a wonderful human being. Rick stepped in and helped me out to win my championship in 1989. He always jokes that he has six and a half championships because he funded half of Rusty’s team. His personal office is inside the race shop. Motorsports is his love."

TIM BREWER, former Cup Series crew chief and current ESPN analyst: "I think it’s a great decision because he wants to go and win races and win championships. He’s going to make the change for himself, get in a good race car and he’ll get the job done. He’s been saying all along that he really wants to drive the No. 3 car at the end of his career so I think that’s the reason he didn’t go to Richard Childress yet. They are proven winners and proven champions at Hendrick. The combination he’s had hasn’t been working, and that’s no disrespect to anyone. If I were him I would show up, not even take my helmet, and just ask ‘which car do you want me to get in?’ If I’d implemented a change and gone this far, I believe I’d make a big change."

TONY PONTURO, of Global Media and Sports Marketing for Anheuser -Busch: "Anheuser-Busch has enjoyed a remarkable relationship with Dale Earnhardt Jr. since our sponsorship commenced back in 1999. Dale Jr. is an excellent ambassador for the sport and our company, and we look forward to exploring options with Hendrick Motorsports and JR Motorsports to continue Budweiser’s relationship with him as he enters this new stage of his racing career."

-- Courtesy NASCAR PR

Busch releases statement

Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 5 Kellogg's Chevrolet in the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series for Hendrick Motorsports and a 4-time Nextel Cup race winner, will depart Hendrick Motorsports at the conclusion of the 2007 season.

The following is a statement from Busch regarding the decision to leave:

"We had been working on a contract extension for me to remain at Hendrick Motorsports, but after prolonged negotiations, we mutually agreed that a fresh start was in order. I have been granted a release after the 2007 season.

"I have tremendous respect for Mr. Hendrick and everyone at Hendrick Motorsports. It’s where I grew up, and I have a lot of great memories.

"I kind of feel like I’m graduating. I’m excited about my future, and I know a lot of opportunities await because of what everyone at Hendrick did for me – on the track and off.

"I still have a job to do this year, and will give it my all – just as I’ve always done – to make sure we put the No. 5 car in victory lane a few more times before the year is out."

Busch won the Lenox 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway last July.

-- Courtesy Hendrick Motorsports

Junior's move made official

At an 11 o'clock press conference this morning, Dale Earnhardt Jr. made it official that he will join the 4-car Hendrick Motorsports stable in Nextel Cup competition, beginning next season.

Earnhardt inked a 5-year contract with Hendrick. Car number, sponsorship details and team aligment will be decided upon in the future, according to Hendrick.

Earnhardt has 17 Cup Series wins in his career, and he joins a team that has won 10 of the first 14 races this season. Kyle Busch will leave Hendrick Motorsports following 2007, after Busch and the team failed to negotiate a contract extension. Hendrick and Busch, according to Hendrick, mutually agreed to part ways.

ESPN's Marty Smith reported this morning that Earnhardt could move directly into the No. 5 seat vacated by Busch's departure, or Casey Mears could slide from the No. 25 into the No. 5, leaving the No. 25 for Earnhardt. Hendrick said during the press conference that he is not opposed to trying to work a deal with Dale Earnhardt Inc. for use of the No. 8 for Earnhardt Jr. in the future.

Line of the Week

Josh St. Clair visited Unity Raceway's victory lane following the 30-lap Super Street feature last Friday night in what would never be deemed an upset. The same brand new race car finished third the week before when Josh's grandfather, Dave St. Clair, drove it, proving it to be a strong piece, and Josh is a multi-time Late Model Sportsman winner at his home track of Wiscasset Raceway.

Josh told Dave he could beat his 3rd place finish, and the larger than life Boss Hogg told him to go ahead and try.

Same car, same engine, same everything -- except for the driver in the seat. Asked after the win what had made the difference, Josh shrugged and said he wasn't really sure. Then the tall and wiry teen offered one small detail.

"Well, we shaved a few pounds off the driver, and that really helped it in the corners," Josh said.


The image endures.

It is a man rolling a Budweiser cooler through a parking lot at New Hampshire International Speedway, No. 8 hat on his head and t-shirt over his chest. Behind that cooler, tied to a rope, is a tattered die-cast replica of Jeff Gordon's No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet skipping along the gravel and pavement. A few more race weekends, and the paint job will be unrecognizeable.

People point and laugh at the ultimate Earnhardt vs. Gordon slap.

Now that the two are teammates, I'm wondering how on earth the sea of red in the grandstands is ever going to reconcile this in their heads. It's the cleanest-cut organization in the sport, the polished drivers of Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, welcoming the good ol' boy swilling beer and living life as the ultimate bachelor.

Hendrick Motorsports is the polar opposite of all things Earnhardt. Now they are teammates, sharing notes, comparing setups, trying to help each other win. What's going to happen when Earnhardt pushes Gordon to victory at Daytona next spring?

Who will Earnhardt's fans throw beer cans at then? Kurt Busch? Tony Stewart? Mike Bliss?

The NASCAR world will stand on its head, and Earnhardt Nation can't be happy about this.


Oxford 250 just weeks away

We're less than six weeks to the running of the 34th annual Oxford 250, but I heard one person refer to the running of this year's race as the first of a new era.

For those of you living under a rock, it's because Late Models will run the race this year, not their Super Late Model (or Pro Stock) cousins.

I've already covered three "big" late Model races this year -- the New England Dodge Dealers 150, the Coastal 200 and the L-A Harley-Davidson 100 -- and I've come away with a few generalities about Late Model racing. It's important to note that the winners of all three of those races started up front.

1) NOT ENOUGH CAR: I never feel like any of the drivers in a 36-car starting field has more car than he/she can handle. So little power, so little test of man...

2) GUARANTEED FOR LIFE: Equipment doesn't seem to wear out after 100, 150 or even 200 laps. To wit: D.J. Shaw and Mike Rowe were the class of the field in Wiscasset's Coastal 200 -- in the heats, in the first segment and over the closing laps. Narrow tires aren't tested by crate engines, and guys have a tough time chasing people down over the long haul. The cars can be driven so deep into the turns, they seem to correct over-driving.

3) WEEKLY CROWD: I still agree with track owners and promoters that the Late Models are the way to go for a weekly program, as opposed to Super Late Models. They cost less for everyone and can put on a wicked 30- or 40-lap weekly show.

Still, last weekend's L-A Harley-Davidson 100 was a great race -- for any division. Shaw and Rowe, Eddie MacDonald and Brian Hoar, Jean Paul Cyr and a number of strong Oxford regulars. Maybe the 37 cars was a disappointment in number, but it was solid in terms of depth. The race itself featured challenges for spots througout the field (except for P1 and P2), and another 50 laps for that show would have made it a real winner.

There's hope for the Oxford 250 -- necessary pit stops for fuel will dictate that whoever wins will have to pass cars to do it. Of course, anytime a race pays the winner 50 grand, the competition will be wratcheted up. I have no doubts about that.

PASS to race at Wiscasset Raceway

New Wiscasset Raceway owner Doug White confirmed this week that the PASS North Series will hold a 150-lap event at the track on Sunday afternoon, August 19.

It will be the first PASS-sanctioned event at the facility since then-owner Dave St. Clair and PASS president Tom Mayberry had a falling out after the 2003 season.

White also said that car owner Paul Watts of Massachusetts will field a second car for Stan Meserve, a Winslow native, for the race. Watts currently fields a machine for Turner driver Mike Rowe. Rowe is currently second in the PASS North standings, 12 points behind his son and 3-time series champion, Ben Rowe.

About the author

Travis Barrett is an award-winning auto racing writer for Central Maine Newspapers -- the Kennebec Journal in Augusta and the Morning Sentinel in Waterville.

Barrett has covered auto racing on the local and regional levels for the last decade, first as a weekly scribe at Seekonk (Mass.) Speedway and later at Thompson (Conn.) International Speedway. Now, he covers the goings-on at all 5 weekly short tracks in Maine, including Wiscasset Raceway, Unity Raceway and Oxford Plains Speedway, in addition to touring series such as the PASS North Series, NASCAR Camping World East Series and the American-Canadian Tour.

For his work on the local level, Barrett was honored for the "Best Motorsports Coverage in a Daily Newspaper" at the 2008 Northeast Motorsports Expo, and he was also a finalist for the Speedway EXPO media excellence award.

Barrett covers NASCAR Nextel Cup weekends twice annually at New Hampshire International Speedway, and has covered Cup racing at Daytona International Speedway, Pocono Raceway and Dover International Speedway in the past.