Twenty-six year-old Brad Keselowski has been a model of consistency in the NASCAR Nationwide Series this season with three wins among 14 top-five finishes in 18 races. He has a commanding 227-point lead over Carl Edwards atop the points standings entering Saturday night’s Missouri-Illinois Dodge Dealers 250 at Gateway International Raceway in Madison, Ill.
He finished third a year ago and had four wins among 22 top-five finishes in 35 races.
Keselowski is 26th in points in the Sprint Cup series. He notched his only win in the Sprint Cup series last year when he took the checkered flag in the 2009 Aaron’s 499 at the Talladega Superspeedway.
Keselowski and Jeffrey Earnhardt, the 21-year-old grandson of Dale Earnhardt Sr. and former driver for the Andy Santerre Motorsports team in the K & N Pro Series East tour, will be the two featured “ringers” for the 37th annual TD Bank 250 at Oxford Plains Speedway on Sunday night.
Heat races begin at 2 p.m., followed by the 250 at 6:30 p.m.
Keselowski and Earnhardt join an impressive group of Sprint Cup stars who have previously spent an off weekend from NASCAR’s top series to run the TD Bank 250. That trend began in 2004 when defending Cup champion Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch accepted OPS owner Bill Ryan’s invitation.
Kurt’s brother Kyle, J.J. Yeley, Denny Hamlin, Maine native Ricky Craven, Kevin Lepage, Terry Labonte and Kenny Wallace are among the other Cup drivers who have run the 250 since 2004 along with Kevin Harvick.
But Harvick has been the only one to take the checkered flag and that occurred in 2008.
The drivers aren’t familiar with the track or their cars and the first-place check of $25,000 brings out the best in all of their competitors. They also earn $100 for every lap they lead.
Keselowski faces a demanding schedule because the 250 will be his third race on the weekend. He ran in the CampingWorld.com 200 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series Friday night before jumping into his Nationwide car Saturday.
Earnhardt made his debut in the Truck series for Rick Ware Racing on Friday.
Maine natives have fared extremely well in the TD Bank 250.
In fact, when Lancaster, N.H., native Roger Brown captured the 2007 TD Bank 250, he snapped a string of 11 consecutive winners from the state of Maine.
Harvick, from Bakersfield, Calif., made it two straight out-of-state winners and Rowley, Mass., native Eddie MacDonald expanded the streak to three last July.
Frenchville’s Shawn Martin, now living in Turner, has two consecutive top-five finishes in the 250 and would love to take the checkered flag.
He feels he has “as good a chance as anybody else.
“We built a new car over the winter,” said Martin, who was fifth a year ago and fourth in 2008. “It’s a Racing Basics Impala.”
He said it has taken some time to break the car in “but we’re getting the car close [to where we want it]. We’ll do some fine-tuning. We’ll experiment with a couple of setups [during practice].
“I tend to do better in longer races,” added Martin.
Jeremie Whorff of West Bath won the 2006 TD Bank 250, but didn’t enter last year’s race.
“I got married on this weekend last year,” explained Whorff, 26, who feels he is a legitimate contender.
“I love my chances,” Whorff said. “Steve Reny always gives me an excellent car.”
Strong’s Scott Luce said the drivers who aren’t familiar with the track will quickly notice that the higher grooves are the places to be.
“That’s where the best bite is,” said Luce.
Farmington’s Jeff Taylor said OPS track officials applied a “traction treatment” substance to the high grooves on the track several years ago because the inside groove was the faster way around the track.
That has resulted in faster grooves on the outside.
“Every place does that,” said Taylor. “But, in my opinion, it doesn’t make for better racing.
“It just moves the groove,” added Taylor. “Now, you could have a good car but if you’re stuck on the bottom for the restarts, you aren’t going anywhere.”
Taylor has finished as high as second (1995) and the owner of Distance Racing Products in Fairfield is still debating whether to race Sunday.
“I’ve got a new car, a Ford Fusion, and I’m going to wait and see how it goes in practice [Saturday],” said Taylor, who has finished ninth and 10th in two weekly races at OPS.
“It has been decent but it hasn’t been great. I’m not going to waste my time or money if I don’t think I have a legitimate chance to win,” he said. “Finishing 15th, 20th or 30th isn’t that appealing any more.”
There are always the same handful of keys to winning the 250.
“If we can get a good draw, I like our chances,” said Glen Luce of Turner, who finished second to Harvick.
Getting a good draw refers to the pre-qualifying draw which positions the drivers for the opening heat races. Since the first set of heat races are only 15 laps, starting in the front of the pack is extremely beneficial.
And with Ryan reducing the number of new tires allowed to be purchased by the teams from 10 to eight, the fewer laps it takes to qualify helps save the tires.
As for the race itself, drivers talk about the importance of patience.
“You ride around for 200 laps and then race the last 50,” said Oxford’s Dennis Spencer Jr.
“You need to pace yourself, take care of your tires and then lay it all on the line [at the end],” said Joey Polewarczyk Jr. of Hudson, N.H., who finished third two years ago.
Another rule change will prevent drivers from falling a lap down during caution laps, enabling their pit crews to service the car without having to hurry.
According to the drivers, the favorites include MacDonald, American-Canadian Tour points leader and defending points champ Brian Hoar of Williston, Vt., Poland’s Tommy Ricker and Buckfield’s Tim Brackett, who are first and second, respectively, in Late Model points at OPS, and Whorff.
“Eddie MacDonald’s on a roll,” said Martin referring to MacDonald’s two ACT wins at OPS this season.
Two-time winner Ben Rowe from Turner is another threat along with Brad Leighton of Center Harbor, N.H., a two-time K & N Pro Series East titlist.