PORTLAND, Maine — Beginning in 2004, the annual TD Bank 250 at Oxford Plains Speedway took on a new look.
Track owner Bill Ryan finally realized his longtime dream of bringing NASCAR Sprint Cup regulars to the race because one weekend in July was a rare off weekend for the Sprint Cup series.
“It was always something I thought would work very well,” said Ryan at the annual midweek press conference in Portland before Sunday’s 39th annual race. “Late in 2003, NASCAR released the 2004 schedule and there was an open date in July. I said, ‘This is my early birthday [present].’ It was the greatest thing ever, that they’ve given me an open date in July. So I put out all sorts of feelers to people I know in the NASCAR world.”
He wound up landing Matt Kenseth, the 2003 Sprint Cup champion, and Kurt Busch for the 2004 TD Bank 250. Busch would go on to capture the Sprint Cup points title later that year.
There has been a steady stream of Cup drivers ever since as Ryan has continued to capitalize on Sprint Cup’s off weekend.
In addition to Kenseth and Kurt Busch, the list of current and former Cup drivers who have raced at the TD Bank 250 since 2004 includes Kyle Busch, J.J. Yeley, Ricky Craven, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Lepage, Terry Labonte, Kevin Harvick, Kenny Wallace and Brad Keselowski.
Harvick won the race in 2008 and Kyle Busch took the checkered flag last year.
Trevor Bayne, who won the Daytona 500 in 2011, will be this year’s Cup driver.
The local drivers enjoy having the Cup drivers in the field but said they don’t give them preferential treatment on the track.
“When you’re racing, you don’t care about who’s around you. You treat every racer pretty much the same,” said Fort Kent’s Austin Theriault, an American-Canadian Tour regular who became the youngest driver to earn a top-three finish a year ago when he finished third behind Busch and Nick Sweet. Theriault was 17.
K and N Pro Series East regular Eddie MacDonald, who won back-to-back 250s in 2009 and 2010, said he races hard and respectfully against the NASCAR drivers, “just like you race everybody else. But it’s great to have them there for the fans. They bring a lot of people and the competition is definitely tough.”
Ryan said having Cup drivers in the field has enabled the track to attract the casual sports fan or race fan.
“It has been great. It has attracted people who might not otherwise be fans of short track racing. And when they watch the race, they’re amazed at the quality of racing,” said Ryan.
“Having them in the race gives it more credibility,” said Theriault, who also said he has gained some knowledge from racing against Busch at the 250 and in a Super Late Model race, the Rowdy 251, at Berlin Raceway (Mich.) last month.
“You can learn from just following a guy like Kyle because he has so much experience,” said Theriault. “And he gives you somebody to shoot for and to compare yourself to.”
Pittston’s Ben Ashline purposely ran practice laps with Busch last year.
“I kind of felt out what he was doing and where he was trying to get his car hooked up,” said the 21-year-old Ashline, an ACT regular.
Oxford Plains Speedway Late Model driver Chris Coolidge of Norway said he tries not to dwell on the fact he’s racing with a Cup regular.
“You say to yourself it’s just another car, but it’s always in the back of your mind that you’re racing with the big boys,” said Coolidge.
“I used to watch them [on TV] the week before the 250 to see if they would mention that they’re racing at Oxford the next weekend,” added Coolidge. “Then I’d watch them the following weekend. It’s cool.”
Buckfield’s Tim Brackett, an OPS regular who has been entering the 250 since 1988, said there are two different types of Cup drivers who show up at Oxford.
“Guys who have cars built just for this race, like Harvick and Kyle Busch, they’re here to absolutely win the race,” said the 50-year-old Brackett. “They’re as tough as you’re going to see. Guys who come in here and drive somebody else’s car and don’t show up until Saturday, they’re at a disadvantage. There aren’t too many places like Oxford. But they’ll adapt quickly.”
He said he races the Cup drivers like they race him.
“Most of the time they’re pretty good because they know they have to finish to win,” said Brackett. “They know most of us, especially the older guys, aren’t going to take a whole lot of pushing around.”
Brackett said there is a mutual respect between the Cup drivers and the local drivers.
“In 2004, I was in the race and Kurt Busch was driving one of my cars. After the race, Kurt was lying in the trailer looking like he was about ready to pass out. I jumped out of my car to see how he was. He said, ‘You guys are as tough as anybody I’ve ever raced against.”