Walking through the parking lot Saturdday afternoon with colleague Steve Craig of the Portland Press Herald, we were stopped by a man wearing a faded Waterford Speedbowl t-shirt.
"Did you guys hear, there are 183 cars here today," the man said, taking a swig from a McDonald's coffee cup. He's talking, of course, about the TD Banknorth 250.
"Actually," Steve said, "that's the entry list. There's almost exactly half that many here today."
The man was pleased, smiling widely.
"First ACT race I went to, there were 74 cars there," Waterford Speedbowl Guy said. "74 cars! Wow, that's a lot of cars. I love Late Models. I just love them. I think that's the way to go, just because there's so many of them around."
That being the case, Waterford Speedbowl Guy is in the right place this weekend.
"I think that's great for a Saturday," said Oxford Plains owner Bill Ryan. "We get a few stragglers in here tomorrow and get to over 100 cars, I'll be the happiest guy in the world."
Fastest in the practice session early in the afternoon were the No. 55 of 2-time Busch East Series champion Brad Leighton and the No. 91 of Quebec's Patrick Laperle. Both were regularly running in the 16.2-second bracket.
Notable in their practice habits were the No. 60 of D.J. Shaw, who packed up early after lunch and called it a day. Happy enough with the car? Also, 5-time Late Model feature winner at OPS this season, Travis Adams, only practiced for about half an hour.
Kevin Lepage is -- outside of New England, at least -- a fair to middling driver struggling to piece together rides at any and all of NASCAR's top 3 levels, a driver who sought out the TD Banknorth 250 and not the other way around.
Which driver, then, means more to Sunday's 34th running of Oxford Plains Speedway's showcase event?
I'm giving my vote to Lepage.
Certainly, for sheer star factor, Labonte trumps Lepage 10-fold, even here in the northeast, where the casual new fan targeted by today's NASCAR probably still don't know Lepage from their lats. Labonte has won at the highest levels, was part of a 1-2-3 Hendrick Motorsports finish at the Daytona 500, has his 2 titles and boasts Maine ties.
When it comes to selling tickets to this race, it's Labonte in a romp over Lepage.
But when it comes to the race itself, it's Lepage, pulling away in the stretch in a way that would have made Barbaro proud.
Lepage is here to race, and he's taken a hands-on approach to the preparation of the Archie St. Hilaire-owned car he'll drive. He tested days before the race, something most Cup drivers have chosen not to do in the past. He also made the trip to TD Banknorth 250 media day this week -- a small accomplishment, but one he did during his vacation this week and, it should be pointed out, something no other Cup driver had done in the 3 years before.
Lepage talks about the setup of his car like he's at Pocono or Michigan or any one of the dozens of stops the Cup Series makes each season. Simply put, Kevin Lepage is here to compete. He's not here hoping he won't embarrass himself on the way to cashing a sizeable appearance check.
Lepage is here because it's the Oxford 250 -- and not one of a hundred other "big races" around the country each season. He gets what this race is all about, and that counts for a ton in my book.
By the time the race ends sometime late Sunday night, it will be Lepage who will have meant a lot more to the thousands of people in the stands during the week, during the weekend and during race day. Guys like that are what the Oxford 250 is all about.
Of course, Lepage reasoned, that's exactly what makes stock-car racing so unique.Read the complete story in today's Kennebec Journal.
I get the impression that Jeremie Whorff can't even believe that Jeremie Whorff won last year's TD Banknorth 250.
Ask him if he's got any experience in a Late Model, he tells you "not really."
Ask him if his PASS North Series season is going well, he tells you "not really."
Ask him if he thought he'd be in the 250 this year to defend his title, he tells you -- you guessed it -- "not really."
Even after winning the biggest race of his career last summer at Oxford Plains Speedway, Whorff can still float around in relative anonymity. Naysayers will tell you that he won the 250 because Kyle Busch and Cassius Clark blew up, because Mike Rowe and Ben Rowe met with misfortune, that there was so much attrition on the track the teams ran more than 100 laps under the caution flag.
But, Whorff also put himself in position for the win -- only days after telling a media gathering that he'd be thrilled if he could just make the feature, let alone win it. For taking the bull by the horns over the final half of that race, he deserves some credit.
"What the 250 did, it was a momentum builder for me," said Whorff, who only agreed to drive for owner Scott Fearn in this race last week. "I learned a lot of stuff that day and in the few days before that testing and everything like that. It really built me up to move on and go a little bit further than the weekly series at Oxford."
Even with Late Models taking center stage in the area's biggest race, Whorff isn't really sold on the cars. He's a Super Late Model driver at heart.
"I went toward the PASS tour, because the caliber of drivers is really huge," said Whorff, 23. "It's the best of the best that run in that PASS series, and I wanted to be involved in it and see how I could do."
For one day this weekend, he'll be involved with the best of the best in another arena.
Use a central Maine racing blog to break news, analyze trends, update race info and spout off with some opinions. And it was working pretty well into the summer, with a couple of hundred page views a day and some good give and take with readers.
Then, the Oxford 250 (I'm sorry -- ahem, the 34th annual TD Banknorth 250) rolled around, and it was time to begin analyzing that race and the stories I'd be covering leading into the big event. So, I made the post entitled "Six Days and Counting..." and it all went downhill.
Readers were chiming in, some in support of the race, some opposing the new Late Model rules. They were calling me out, they were calling Oxford Plains owner Bill Ryan out, they were calling one another out.
And then, darn it all, Bill went and posted. His comment was the 16th under that posting.
It was also the last.
"Yeah, after I wrote that, silence," Bill said to me on Wednesday. "Sorry about that."
The great thing about Oxford Plains Speedway and the Oxford 250 is that they remain staples of Maine racing. Because of that, of course, they also remain polarizing forces in uncertain racing times. Together, the track and its marquee event are launching pads for debate.
One thing is true -- reference Oxford Plains Speedway or the 250, and you're going to hear from all sides, good, bad and ugly. And, Bill, as they say in the PR game -- there's no such thing as bad publicity. As long as they're talking about you, you must be doing something right.
On Friday morning, the 2 drivers will fly from Maine to Nova Scotia, where they will practice for Saturday's IWK 250 for the PASS North Series at Riverside Speedway. The plane will stay there and wait for them, and they'll fly back after the race to be home in time for Sunday's TD Banknorth 250 at Oxford Plains Speedway.
If it rains, well, they'll re-evaluate. The forecasts in the middle of the week aren't promising.
"It's supposed to rain until Monday up there," Ben Rowe said. "That would keep me there."
Rowe is leading the PASS standings, and the IWK 250 is arguably the biggest race of the season for PASS. Mike Rowe is second, and neither wants to give up their spot in the series standings.
Jeff Taylor is standing by to race Ben's No. 4 car at Oxford should he be trapped north of the border; Tracy Gordon will stand-in for Mike in the No. 24 if need be. Taylor and Gordon each have OPS titles in their resumes, but neither has won the Oxford 250.
"Hopefully, if it rains Saturday, it will rain Sunday," Ben said. "If I get up Sunday morning and it's raining, I'll get back (to Oxford) somehow. If I can get on a plane or helicopter, something, there's enough stuff to get me and my father back."
The exercise is a simple one. Drivers in the room are asked who they think will win the 250, and they are not allowed to choose themselves. From the sounds of it, though, Ricker wouldn't have chosen himself if he could have.
"I'll pick Travis Adams, because that's what I'm hoping for," Ricker said. "Me, I'll probably just be sitting there drinking beer watching the race with all the rest of the people."
To steal a line from radio talk show host Jim Rome, "Rack Him."
"If you get caught cheating, you're no longer eligible for the Chase," said Lepage, which raised more than a few eyebrows at the table.
"The other thing you could do is fine the teams 500 points," said Lepage, who was at the annual Oxford 250 media day, an open Late Model race he'll compete in on Sunday. "If you look at the way the point fund is structured, you're going from $9 million for winning to $1 million."
"Hit them in the wallet to get their attention," someone mused.
Two things are certain: Kevin Lepage isn't afraid of having an opinion, something lacking in the Nextel Cup garage, and NASCAR's current stance on cheating isn't working at all.
Three races ago at New Hampshire International Speedway, 3 of the race's top-5 finishers did so with suspended crew chiefs. Last week at Chicagoland, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson were strong contenders until Johnson crashed out with a blown tire despite working without their regular signal callers.
Gordon, Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., all of whom were docked 100 points and had crew chiefs suspended for 6 races, are still Chase-qualified as of this moment. What, then, is that saying about NASCAR's penalties? Certainly, they aren't tough enough and teams aren't afraid of the consequences of being caught.
Lepage also suggested that pressure from sponsors isn't has much as some might believe. In fact, he said, because the media names the drivers and crew chiefs only, the sponsors are typically left above it all.
"Now, if the headline in USA Today said, 'Lowe's team cheats,'" Lepage said,"then that would get their attention. If people think a company is cheating at the racetrack, then are they going to believe that company will cheat them on prices? You bet they will."
New rules and a new year have the Canton racer with a brand new attitude entering Sunday's TD Banknorth 250 at Oxford Plains Speedway, where qualifying gets underway at 2 p.m.
I counted the cars in the first heat race to roll out onto the track from that turn 3 pit exit, doing a little quick math in my head to determine how many cars had shown up. I poured over the car numbers and paint schemes with my eyes to see which drivers and teams made unexpected trips to the .375 mile track.
Those were my Oxford 250 halcyon days -- the days before I thought I'd ever have the cell phone numbers of Racin' Ralph Nason or OPS owner Bill Ryan locked in my own cell; the days before I thought I'd be able to just walk up to Ricky Craven in a crowded pit area and ask him how his car was running; the days before I knew Cup drivers weren't just racing for the love of racing, they were doing it for the $15,000 appearance fees.
In the last few years, as a card-carrying member of the Maine Motorsports Media, my Oxford 250 excitement was waning. I already knew -- with very few exceptions -- who was going to show up before they even got to the track, and I had an idea how many would be there, too. And I could list the number of pre-race favorites on one hand.
Maybe it was a hazard of the job. Maybe it was a sign of the racing times.
But this year is a little different. I don't know who will be there for certain, and I don't know how many cars are going to show up, and I certainly don't know who will win. Part of it, certainly, has to do with a Late Model field I've admittedly covered relatively little of. Part of it, too, has to do with the ridiculous number of entries for Sunday's race.
For me, it's injected a little bit of life into the 34th running of the TD Banknorth 250. I know the field will be large -- by any standard you choose to measure it -- and there will be plenty of household New England racing names, from Rowe to Crouch, from Lepage to Leighton.
In my world of a wife, 2 toddlers and a mortgage payment, heading to the track weekend after weekend isn't always as much fun as it sounds like. To quote Ebby Calvin Nuke Laloosh in the greatest sports move of all-time, "Bull Durham": Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.
This time around, I think it's all about winning.
How many of those teams will actually show up in the tiny oval's pit area this weekend remains to be determined, but one thing is certain. The guys who will be there are backed by some pretty impressive resumes.
The record 177 drivers entered for the 34th annual Oxford tradition boast among them a total of 145 track, series and Oxford 250 championships.
"Well, it's pretty hard to argue with those kind of numbers," said Farmington's Cassius Clark, a two-time feature winner at the track. "I mean, that's a pretty impressive list."To read the entire story, check out today's Kennebec Journal.
After Rowe went out and won his heat race, he entered the Pepsi Racing 75 at Thompson International Speedway last Saturday night with a 28-point lead over Johnny Clark in the standings. Rowe won the race, Clark had a flat tire that caused him to crash into the turn one wall and Rowe extended an already sizeable lead at the top of the PASS world.
Mike Rowe finished 3rd after starting dead last in the 24-car field with clutch problems in his heat race. Unofficially, Ben Rowe leads his father by 35 points with 8 races remaining. Clark dropped to 4th with a second-straight 16th-place finish, behind Richie Dearborn some 58 points out of the lead.
"It's never too early," Rowe said of watching the points battle. "Johnny and my father are really close. Johnny had his bad luck, and I'm sure we'll have ours."
Neither Clark nor Mike Rowe was willing to concede anything yet, even though with each finishing position separated by only 2 points it's incredibly hard to make up serious ground in the PASS standings.
"We'll just keep plugging away and whatever happens, happens," Clark said. "You want to go out and win races. We had a good chance at a 2nd or 3rd place run tonight, but we cut a tire down and there was nothing I could do except spin the car around and hit the wall.
"I don't know. We've been pretty good with pretty much a similar setup to this up until to this part of the season. I don't know why it didn't work here, but, man, nothing we were doing here was working."
Mike Rowe said his team is only focused on one thing -- catching his son.
"We just want to win races," Mike said. "Benji's out front and winning, so that's bad for us."
Still, Ben Rowe doesn't think he's locked up anything yet. He knows that several teams are capable of getting on a roll.
"We've just got to keep doing what we're doing and keep digging" he said. "This point last year, we were so far behind but we won the last 3. Hopefully we'll get on another win streak."
That he'd never seen Thompson International Speedway before last Saturday night wasn't exactly out of the ordinary for Trevor Sanborn. That he matched his career-best by finishing 2nd there to 3-time series champion Ben Rowe, however, suggests that the 19-year-old from Parsonsfield is getting the hang of driving the Cushman Competition No. 29 Fords.
In the last three races, he's finished 3rd, 4th and 2nd after starting out the season with 2 finishes outside the top-15 in the first 3 events. Part of the problem for Sanborn has been unfamiliarity with the entire package -- the tracks, the team and the cars -- after starting out running a Pro Stock at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway.
"Most of the (the tracks) are new this year," Sanborn said at Thompson. "There's just a couple that I've been to before this year, like Unity and Beech Ridge. The rest of them -- Hallifax, Star -- it's all new. It's a whole new game.
"For me, it's just getting used to the team and making changes and that stuff. I'm kind of getting used to the cars. They're a whole different ballgame than Jeff Taylor race cars. These are Junior Hanley chassis, and it's just a matter of getting used to it."
With a string of good finishes under his belt over the last month, Sanborn thinks the team has turned a corner and is inching close to a victory lane trip.
"I would say both," Sanborn said. "We got off on a bad foot at the beginning of the year, and we just ended up coming out on top these last three races by getting top fives. I can't wait for the win."
What to make of the 175 entries? What to make of Late Model racing, in general? How do the nearly 150 championships among those on the entry list effect the race, if at all? Do fans flock out for just any Cup drivers, or will it take more than Terry Labonte and Kevin Lepage to create that buzz about the event?
Who's coming, who's not coming, who's going to win and who's going to miss out on qualifying altogether?
For the last 12 months, the biggest racing story in New England has continued to revolve around Late Models and Super Late Models. For 15 years, the Oxford 250 belonged to the Super Late Model crowd, as did Oxford Plains Speedway's weekly racing series. Now though, it's a Late Model track clearly aligned with Tom Curley's American-Canadian Tour, and those cars will get their crack at running the richest short-track event in the region.
Some guys are all-in, like weekly racers from places like Wiscasset and Unity Raceways. Some guys are all-out, like reigning and 2-time PASS champion Johnny Clark. Other guys don't care what kind of car runs the race and they'll be there anyway, like multi-time race winners Mike Rowe and Ben Rowe.
The lines have clearly been drawn.
As a reporter, I'll admit to liking more than a little controversy. Guys take sides, turn into high-powered quote machines, and every week there's seemingly a new angle to the story.
But there's another side to all this ugliness, one that is growing tired. It's been a year -- and we're still talking about it. One Super Late Model racer asked me earlier this summer why I was bothering to cover "just a Late Model race."
Here's the deal, as straight as a newspaperman can lay it out -- the Oxford 250 has more than 3 decades of history behind it with all different types of cars and, last I checked, the winner is still guaranteed to take home at least $25,000 in front of a capacity (or very near-capacity) crowd. That makes the race relevant and a must from a coverage standpoint.
I'd also think it would make it a must from a fan's standpoint, but I guess we'll learn all about that in the coming days.
1st gear -- Stewart gets to victory lane: With the 10-point bonus awarded to Chase competitors for each win during the "regular" season, getting into the Chase -- at least for now -- doesn't seem to be quite enough. With drivers like Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson racking up some early-season wins to give themselves some separation when the Chase starts, its imperative for the rest of the guys to get some 'W's, too. Plus, Stewart historically has gone on 2nd half rolls, and it could be bad news for the rest if the No. 20 team starts firing on all cylinders and threatens to run away and hide every week.