Brad Leighton has had his share of highs and lows during his impressive auto racing career.
The two-time Busch North Series champion (1999, 2000) experienced both during Sunday night’s 37th annual TD Bank 250 at Oxford Plains Speedway.
The Center Harbor, N.H., native led 189 of the 250 laps until his right front tire blew on lap 203 and that cost him a chance to take the checkered flag. He wound up finishing fifth as Rowley, Mass., native Eddie MacDonald won his second straight 250.
Leighton said he was confident he would have won the race without the flat tire.
“There was no doubt that we had the car to beat,” said Leighton. “It’s disappointing. The [crew] guys worked so hard. They deserved to win.
“Stuff happens. That’s racing. You lose more than you win,” said the 48-year-old Leighton. “It was too bad.”
Leighton said there aren’t many opportunities to drive such a dominant car.
“I found a comfort lane and just drove it. The car handled so well that we made short work of the lapped traffic. It was pretty amazing,” said Leighton. “It was so effortless. It’s not often that you get a car like that. I was about to pass the fourth- and fifth-place teams when we had that caution on lap 140.”
MacDonald speculated that because Leighton was racing hard to keep some lapped cars one lap down, particularly those driven by Patrick Laperle and Don Wentworth, Leighton mat have worn out his tires, resulting in the flat.
“I wasn’t running any harder in the second leg of the race than I was in the first leg,” said Leighton. “It was just a bum tire. There’s no other way to put it, unfortunately. The inside wall blew out.”
He had changed all four tires on lap 140 so all of his tires had just 63 laps on them when the right front one blew.
After changing the tire on lap 203, Leighton’s car came out of the pits in the 22nd position for the restart. Unlike NASCAR, in which the lead-lap cars start up front on the restarts, the cars are intermingled on the restarts with just the race leader occupying the pole position. So lead-lap cars and cars that are a lap down start according to where they were when the caution was first issued.
And, for this race, drivers were allowed to purchase just eight new tires instead of 10.
“So we had to put a [used] tire on the right front. It had 140 laps on it,” said Leighton who was driving for team owner Peter Duto and his Vermont-based team.
That all but negated his chance to win the race.
“If [the tire rule] was like it was in previous years, we could have put a new set of tires on the right side and maybe made some ground up [over the final 47 laps],” said Leighton. “But it didn’t work out. I was running against cars with fresher tires. There’s no way you can keep up with cars that have fresher tires.”
Leighton now owns the distinction of having led the most laps at the TD Bank 250 without winning the race.
He took it in stride. He said he has lost races before in which he was leading on the final lap only to run out of gas.
“I’ve won eight races at Loudon but I’ve given four more away. But I haven’t had something like this happen on this big a stage,” said Leighton who drove a “tempermental” Chevy Monte Carlo built by Dale Shaw.
“The car has a mind of its own. We had to park it after 112 laps in a race at Lee [USA Speedway, N.H.} earlier this year because it was so bad,” he said.
The race was profitable for Leighton and his crew as they earned $23,900. They earned $18,900 by leading 189 laps worth $100 apiece. In addition, the fifth-place finisher earns $5,000.
MacDonald enjoys OPS success
MacDonald has had great success at OPS as his win in the TD Bank 250 was his fourth at OPS in his last five races there.
In addition to the back-to-back 250s, he won a pair of 150-lap American-Canadian Tour series races there earlier this season.
“I really like flat tracks. You really have to be smooth at those tracks because there’s no forward bite,” said the 30-year-old MacDonald.
The Pontiac Grand Prix was built for the “purpose of coming to Oxford to try to win the 250,” according to MacDonald.
“It was a steep goal but that’s what makes it that much more special, especially with the tradition behind [the race],” said MacDonald. “The worst thing is it was a really fast car the two years before we won the last two 250s. It’s just nice to finally be able to go there and get two wins after having fast cars the previous two years and not coming home with anything.”
He was 23rd in 2007 and eighth in 2008.
He became the fourth driver to win back-to-back TD Bank 250s. The others were Geoffrey Bodine (1980-81), Ralph Nason (1998-99, 2000) and Ben Rowe (2003-04).
MacDonald said crew chief Rollie Lachance of Auburn has played a critical role in his success and said “we work well together.”
The Grand Prix is stored at Lachance’s place in New Gloucester while his other race cars in the K & N Pro Series East tour are in Newburyport, Mass.
“To have that car so close to the racetrack makes it so much easier for us to do this race,” said MacDonald.
MacDonald also has a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series truck he is hoping to debut at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in September. He will also run a K & N Series race and an ACT feature there that weekend.
The payday for the TD Bank 250 doesn’t hurt, either as MacDonald pocketed $29,800. The winner earns $25,000 and he made $4,800 in lap money.
“It’s not too often you can make that kind of money with a race car,” said MacDonald.
He said some of the $35,300 he made for winning last year’s TD Bank 250 “went back into the car to do a few things it really needed. That’s why it’s been running a little better this year than last year. We were able to buy the parts we needed to make the car even more competitive.”