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New England Notebook: Benjamin wins third Oxford 250, Kruczek sweeps Oxford ACT races

Travis Benjamin, Oxford 250, 8/25/2019
Travis Benjamin (#7) dives low on Ben Rowe (#4) late in the Oxford 250. Benjamin would go on to win his third 250, while Derek Griffith finished second. (Jeff Brown photo)

Each week, Short Track Scene looks back at results and news from northern New England’s Late Model and Super Late Model competition, from the region’s premier tours — the American-Canadian Tour, the Granite State Pro Stock Series, and the Pro All Stars Series — to the tracks and drivers that support them. Thanks to the local journalists and fans who report in from the track each week to keep their fellow fans informed.

ACT TOUR: KRUCZEK GOES TWO FOR TWO AT OXFORD

A few weeks after the American-Canadian Tour’s Midsummer 250 at White Mountain Motorsports Park, the Vermont-based Late Model organization headed east to serve as the preamble to the region’s most notable Super Late Model race. The ACT 150 would anchor an undercard evening for the PASS-sanctioned Oxford 250, pairing with the visiting Tri-Track Open Modified Series for 250 combined laps of Late Models and Tour-type Modifieds.

When the Tour pulled away from Oxford a few years ago, they cited a lack of Maine-based tracks and teams, a fair argument given that none of the Maine short tracks run ACT-rules Late Models on a weekly basis. Weekly entries are a big part of the Tour’s participation on the road. But on the eve of the 250, and with tracks like White Mountain Motorsports Park opting not to compete with Oxford, the Tour had a field to brag about, with 37 cars pitted in the staging area of the dragstrip behind Oxford Plains Speedway.

PHOTOS: Check out photos from Saturday’s ACT and TTOMS events at Oxford Plains Speedway.

Part-time Tour racer Bryan Kruczek, the Oxford winner in April, was back in search of a repeat of his first career ACT win. Visiting from WMMP’s weekly teams were points leader Quinny Welch, Jesse Switser, and rookie Cody LeBlanc, who had experience at Oxford from his days on the North East Mini Stock Tour. From Thunder Road in Vermont came Scott Dragon and John Donahue. Others from the northern reaches of New Hampshire and Vermont included Ryan Olsen, Shawn Swallow, Craig Bushey, and Brockton Davis. Thompson and Seekonk Speedways sent Tom Carey III, Ryan Morgan and Mike Benevides north for the night. Dany Trépanier and Alexendre Tardif joined the usual Canadian contingent from Quebec. And PASS regular Bobby Therrien, who finished well at Oxford in April before a disqualification, had scored a ride in the #04VT entry.

And three drivers in the field called Maine home: former Tour racer JR Robinson led the home-state charge over Dylan Turner and David MacDonald, who was shaking down a new #69ME Chevy.

Heat races kicked off with a bang, with Ryan Kuhn, visitor Jimmy Renfrew, Jr., Mathieu Kingsbury and Tom Carey III each claiming a win. The hopefuls for the starting grid were also pared by one, with Craig Weinstein driving over Reilly Lanphear’s car during their heat. Weinstein was parked for the night for his role in the crash; Lanphear’s team patched their car together, but she was well off the pace the rest of the night. Cody LeBlanc and Trent Goodrow scored consi wins to set the rest of the 36-car field. LeBlanc and Scott Coburn took their plus-minus scores to the front row for the feature.

When the green dropped, Cody LeBlanc held onto the top spot for the first eight laps, looking like a veteran at the point until Bobby Therrien came calling. Therrien, from third on the grid, had left his Fast One Motorsports PASS entry at home. But with an ACT win at Oxford, the “Bad Boy” from Hinesburg, Vt. looked to be a spoiler to win.

Then Jesse Switser began to close in on Therrien. Switser, the second WMMP regular to make noise early on, went to the front on lap 44, pulling away from the field as he looked poised to score an upset win if he could hold on.

Behind Switser, though, the former winners were advancing from their handicapped starting positions. Bryan Kruczek was leading that charge, as he slipped past Therrien and into second, then began to carve into Switser’s lead. When the yellow flag flew for Scott Dragon’s crash right before halfway, Switser’s lead over Kruczek was erased.

Kruczek’s season had been a pleasant surprise. The veteran PASS racer, with two career wins at Oxford and Beech Ridge Motor Speedway, had joined forces with Star Speedway owner Bobby Webber, Jr. in the offseason. Webber, who had acquired a car from Jimmy Hebert’s team, planned a part-time Tour schedule as Star became a part of the ACT Tour schedule in 2019. After a poor showing on the road in Richmond, Va., Kruczek and Webber went to victory lane at Oxford in the Tour season opener. The part-time schedule had turned into five of the first seven events, with Kruczek scoring two more top-five finishes. Webber had already announced a full-season effort for 2020 with a new car on order.

Driving the old car, Kruczek lined up second on the restart. He only needed three laps to get past Switser. Behind the two leaders, the battle for third had become chippy, with Stephen Donahue fending off a pack including Ryan Kuhn, Scott Payea, and Quebecers Jonathan Bouvrette and Alexendre Tardif.

With 42 laps to go, a multi-car spin brought out the seventh caution of the race. On the restart, Jesse Switser faded on worn tires as Kruczek and Donahue distanced themselves from the third-place battle. A flat tire for JR Robinson brought out a caution flag with 14 laps remaining, and the final yellow flew on the restart as several cars got together in the first turn. Early leader Bobby Therrien and Shawn Swallow took the brunt of the accident, with Ryan Olsen also calling it a night.

Donahue lined up alongside Kruczek for the night’s last restart, and while he kept the battle close, he had nothing more than that to give. Kruczek led the final 74 laps en route to his second career ACT Tour win, his second win of the season, and a season sweep at Oxford Plains Speedway.

Stephen Donahue, the runner-up to Wayne Helliwell, Jr. at White Mountain Motorsports Park earlier in August, earned his second-straight second place finish. Scott Payea emerged as the winner of the third-place battle, but with Rich Dubeau finishing a quiet-but-stellar fourth, Payea could not gain any meaningful ground in the points race. Payea’s younger cousin Dylan rounded out the top five for a career-best run.

Jimmy Hebert worked from the 20th spot to sixth by the end of the race, with Alexendre Tardif finishing seventh after starting way back in 30th. Rookie leader Ryan Kuhn finished eighth, with consi winner Trent Goodrow ninth and WMMP’s Quinny Welch tenth.

Connecticut’s Ryan Morgan was eleventh, with Dany Trépanier twelfth after starting way back in the field. JR Robinson rebounded to 13th as the best of the Mainers, with Tom Carey III 14th. Heat winner Jimmy Renfrew, Jr. was 15th after dropping out early in April’s 150-lapper. Maine’s Dylan Turner, Joel Hodgdon, early leaders Cody LeBlanc and Jesse Switser, and Mathieu Kingsbury completed the top 20, with Christopher Pelkey the last car on the lead lap.

Top-six nights for the top three in points kept things constant in the championship battle, with Rich Dubeau leading Jimmy Hebert with a wide margin back to third-place Scott Payea. With only two races left in the points battle, Payea will need massive luck in the next two races to contend for the title.

Interestingly, Oxford is the only track on the ACT Tour schedule that does not host weekly ACT-rules cars, favoring instead the PASS Super Late Models. However, the legendary track has acquitted itself nicely in the last two years, silencing the car-count concerns of two years ago and attracting impressive fields for 2019’s races. It seems that the Tour has found a home in Maine, even with a short list of drivers to call themselves “locals.”

After a month off, the ACT teams get a mere week to turn their cars around for the annual Coca-Cola Labor Day Classic 200 at Thunder Road International Speedbowl. May’s appearance at Thunder Road proved to be pivotal for the championship race; will the Nation’s Site of Excitement throw a curveball into the title race entering the home stretch?

PASS NORTH: BENJAMIN’S LATE CHARGE SECURES THIRD OXFORD 250 WIN

Eleven points races, a handful of qualifying events and a year’s worth of weekly features at Oxford Plains Speedway all came down to last weekend’s Oxford 250. The 46th running of the region’s richest and most prestigious Super Late Model race was, yet again, the climax of New England’s Super Late Model racers’ season, whether they competed at the few tracks still running weekly SLMs or whether they chased the Pro All Stars Series championship.

Plenty of teams opted to practice Friday and Saturday in anticipation of the 250, though some teams only filtered in on race day, and others had to race elsewhere Saturday night. But on Sunday morning, the final count stood at 57 teams ready to make their attempt at the 250. A few teams on the entry list were missing from the pits. Washington State’s Garrett Evans and 2016 winner Wayne Helliwell, Jr. were expected to race but did not make the trip. Bobby Therrien, who was in the pits for the weekend’s ACT feature, did not bring his Super Late Model. Devin O’Connell was in the pits helping a fellow Granite State Pro Stock Series racer, but would not continue his PASS National Championship chase. Dillon Moltz, runner-up for the 2017 ACT Tour title, practiced on Friday but bowed out before Sunday.

Even with the no-shows and scratches, the 57 cars packing the pits represented a healthy cross-section of the SLM landscape. Bryan Kruczek, fresh off his win the night before, would try to qualify in Bobby Webber’s SLM. Kruczek was not the only recent winner; Mike Rowe, in his red #24, won the Beech Ridge weekly feature before the 250 for the second year in a row. Dave Farrington, Jr. and Trevor Sanborn had raced against Rowe at Beech Ridge and would do so again Sunday. Chassis builders Jeff Taylor (from Distance Racing Products) and Jeremy Davis (of Davis Chassis Works), and Taylor’s lieutenant Ben Ashline (in Ajay Picard’s #99), joined DJ Shaw in representing their own handiwork on the track. Canadians Cole Butcher and Ashton Tucker would square off against locals Tim and TJ Brackett and Kyle Treadwell. Rookies Josh Childs and Ryan Kuhn were pitted against veterans Scott Robbins and Glen Luce. With Brandon Barker in his own #88 car, the #16 of owner Wright Pearson was driven by Adam Gray. At every stall in the pit area awaited a different story but the same dream.

PHOTOS: Check out photos from Sunday’s 46th Annual Oxford 250.

With far more cars than starting positions to offer, the extra-distance 20-lap heats had more significance and intensity than they would the rest of the year. Ryan Kuhn, the ACT Tour’s top rookie, won his heat, with Bubba Pollard also advancing to the big show. Eddie MacDonald won the second heat, with Reid Lanpher advancing after dragging his car home overnight to find some speed. Cassius Clark was the victor in the third heat, with Johnny Clark charging from the back to contend for the lead only a couple laps in. After struggling at Oxford throughout his SLM career, Derek Griffith pulled off a win in the fourth heat, beating local favorite Curtis Gerry and GSPSS star Ray Christian III. Cole Butcher claimed the fifth heat, but the fifth heat claimed a few racers of its own, with a turn-one pileup dealing terminal damage to John Peters and Travis Stearns. Peters and Stearns were done for the afternoon. Jeff Taylor, who dropped out early from his heat, loaded up early as well.

The two consis pared down the field even further. Bryan Kruczek rear-ended Evan Hallstrom’s slowing car, damaging his nose and forcing him to the pits. Kelly Moore clipped the curb on the restart, with Calvin Rose, Jr. climbing the left front of Moore’s spinning car. Moore pulled into the pits and was unable to get his car back together for the last-chance race. Ben Ashline held on to win the first consi. In the second consi, Ryan Green and Jeff White were involved in an early altercation, with Ben Rowe going on to win the consi over Tracy Gordon.

With Moore, Green and White unable to continue, and Jeremy Davis and Kyle Treadwell loading up early as well, only ten cars remained to take the green in the last-chance B-feature, which was shortened from 50 to 25 laps. Austin Teras won the B-feature, with three more cars awarded provisionals to bring the field to 44 strong. Jeremie Whorff, Scott Farrington, John Salemi, Billy Rodgers and Ben Lynch would fail to make the feature.

With the starting lineup complete, heat winners Ryan Kuhn and Eddie MacDonald would lead the field to green. Curtis Gerry lined up ninth. Bubba Pollard was gridded 16th. Consi winners Ben Ashline and Ben Rowe started 26th and 27th. Points runner-up Garrett Hall was 33rd to DJ Shaw’s 7th-place result. ACT winner Bryan Kruczek started 40th with a provisional. Consi winner Austin Teras rolled off 41st. The field assembled on the frontstretch for driver introductions and an appearance by grand marshal Bob Bahre, who owned the track in the 1970s and 1980s and was instrumental in the early days of the Oxford 250.

Ryan Kuhn led the field to green, but Eddie MacDonald wasted no time dispatching the rookie. “The Outlaw” took the point on the first lap, hoping to become the first driver to win the Oxford 250 under both ACT Late Model and PASS Super Late Model rules. MacDonald’s lead did not last long, though, with Nick Sweet moving to the top spot. Sweet, winner of the last PASS event at Oxford, had become a sleeper favorite as he continued to get the hang of the PASS SLMs.

A caution for Scott McDaniel’s crash with a spinning Joey Pole erased Sweet’s lead with 48 laps complete, and MacDonald took the lead back seven laps later. Cassius Clark made a three-wide outside pass to take second from Sweet, then went to work on Eddie Mac, looking to the outside. Clark, winner of the IWK 250 and Toromont CAT 250 this summer, had proven himself a master of Atlantic Canada’s biggest SLM events, but had yet to earn an Oxford 250 trophy.

Clark finally got his opportunity on lap 90, working around MacDonald in traffic to take the top spot. A yellow flag eight laps later brought the field to a crawl and presented the first legitimate opportunity to put pit strategy to work. Clark, MacDonald, and most of the other leaders came to the pits for tires and adjustments, shuffling DJ Shaw and Jake Johnson to the front.

Shaw and Johnson battled on the restart, with Johnson finally wresting the lead from the three-time PASS champion five laps short of halfway. Behind them, Alan Tardiff was dicing through traffic on fresh tires. Tardiff, the 2017 Oxford Plains Speedway champion, had opted for a limited PASS schedule rather than the weekly battle in 2019, but as he took the lead on lap 135, he looked every bit the weekly veteran, leaving Johnson and Shaw in the dust as he chewed through lapped traffic.

For a number of drivers, the long green-flag run spelled disaster. The same strategy played out last year, when some drivers never got the yellow flag they needed and ran out of fuel under green-flag conditions. As Tardiff continued to gap the field, Reid Lanpher, Ryan Kuhn and others fell a lap down as they desperately awaited pit stops. At last, a spin brought the yellow out on lap 179, allowing a host of needy teams to head pitside. For those who had to pit, only 71 laps remained for them to get through the field and back to the front.

Tardiff and Sweet stayed on the track under yellow and brought the field back to green. One lap later, Jake Johnson slammed into the turn-four wall and came to a stop on the frontstretch. The Massachusetts teen was fine, but his car was done for the night, ending a promising run for the PASS National Championship contender.

Tardiff and Sweet again lined up for the restart, with Dave Farrington, Jr., Cassius Clark and a fast Ben Rowe behind them. Nick Sweet outdueled Tardiff for the lead, but when the yellow flew for Gabe Brown going off-track a couple laps later, the two leaders elected to pit for right-side tires, handing the race lead back to Cassius Clark.

A fierce restart battle with Dave Farrington allowed Clark to get away on the restart, with Ben Rowe, Griffith and Benjamin inching ever closer to the top spot. After getting Farrington out of the way, Benjamin and Griffith took Rowe three-wide, moving up to second and third. By the time Benjamin got past Griffith to take second, the 2013 PASS North champ had pulled away from the pack. Benjamin began reeling in Clark, closing in quickly as Clark worked through lapped traffic. With forty laps to go, Travis Benjamin moved into the top spot, with Clark falling to second. Clark soon fell victim to Shaw, Eddie MacDonald and Griffith, dropping him to the back half of the top five.

Eddie Mac had moved back into third and was advancing, but his hopes went up in smoke as his engine expired with 23 laps remaining. With twelve laps left on the board, Ashton Tucker came to a stop in turn three with a flat tire, bringing out the yellow again and taking away Benjamin’s significant lead.

Shaw lined up alongside Benjamin for the restart and kept the two-time Oxford 250 winner honest, but Benjamin got back to the lead quickly, leaving Shaw to hold off Derek Griffith for second. With four to go, a turn-three wreck collected Tracy Gordon and Tim Brackett, among others, bringing out the yellow flag one more time.

This time, Derek Griffith lined up alongside Travis Benjamin for the restart. Griffith gave chase on the restart, but there was no denying Benjamin. The veteran driver had gone winless in PASS since last year’s season finale at Seekonk. The season had been enough of a struggle that, well out of the points, Benjamin and Petit Motorsports had turned their focus to a couple weekly features at Oxford to get their car ready for the 250. Preparation paid off in spades as Benjamin held off Griffith in the final four laps to win the 46th edition of the Oxford 250.

Benjamin’s victory was his third in the 250, tying him with Mike Rowe and retired legends “Dynamite” Dave Dion and “Racin’” Ralph Nason as the only four drivers to win the 250 three times. Benjamin’s first two wins came back-to-back in 2013 and 2014, the first two events contested as part of the Pro All Stars Series. Benjamin’s first two wins also came in his own #17 car. The third win came in equipment owned by two-time championship owner Peter Petit. Benjamin delivered Petit his second championship as an owner, and now delivered him an Oxford 250 championship.

Derek Griffith’s second-place run marked his best finish by far in PASS competition at Oxford Plains Speedway. DJ Shaw finished third, close but not close enough for the driver who has yet to win a 250. Johnny Clark, who said early in the week that he would trade his six PASS championships for an Oxford 250 win, was fourth. Sneaking into the top five late was Mike Hopkins, who solidified his grasp atop the PASS National Championship standings.

Cole Butcher was sixth in the final rundown, with Ben Ashline finishing seventh in his first PASS-sanctioned Oxford 250. Cassius Clark faded in traffic to an eighth-place finish. Curtis Gerry, an early favorite but stymied by pit strategy, finished ninth after never finding his way to the lead. Alan Tardiff, the mid-race leader, was tenth.

Nick Sweet, who made a late pit stop with Tardiff, climbed back to 11th at race’s end, ahead of Ray Christian III and Brandon Barker, who was erroneously scored a lap down. Dave Farrington, Jr. and Ben Rowe, who got separately drop-kicked from the lead pack, finished together in 14th and 15th.

Shawn Martin, making the field on a provisional he earned in a qualifier earlier this year, was 16th, ahead of Trevor Sanborn, who got a lap back late in the race. Veteran Scott Robbins and rookie Evan Hallstrom, who was added to the field after finishing second in the LCQ, rounded out the lead lap. Reid Lanpher, lapped under the long green-flag stint mid-race, was the first car a lap back in 20th.

Polesitter Ryan Kuhn ended the race two laps back in 25th. Mike Rowe finished three laps down in 26th, involved in the crash with four to go. Glen Luce, the 2015 Oxford 250 winner, started dead last but finished 28th, four laps back. Gabe Brown was 29th after struggling through qualifying and having issues on pit road. Joey Polewarczyk struggled through the evening and came home five laps down in 30th.

Garrett Hall, second in points entering the event, started deep in the field, worked through traffic, but was knocked out by issues with ten laps remaining and finished 36th. Bubba Pollard made the field but never made waves, getting stuck in the high line and losing a lap before 50 circuits were on the board. Pollard soldiered on, but after losing a second lap, he pulled to the garage area and finished 42nd. Pollard immediately set to work on the car his team brought to enter at Jukasa Motor Speedway in the Canadian Short Track Nationals.

DJ Shaw’s podium finish kept him atop the standings, but rising to second place is Nick Sweet, who sits 31 points back of the lead with races at Oxford and Thunder Road looming on the schedule. Derek Griffith is a short distance back in third, with his Oxford performance a sure shot in the arm. Ben Rowe’s late fade ended his streak of top-five runs, but he now sits fourth in points, with Garrett Hall’s misfortune in a deep field relegating him to fifth.

Gabe Brown, sixth in the standings, is almost 100 points back of Hall despite starting every race. Brown is securely ahead of Travis Benjamin, Reid Lanpher, and Johnny Clark, who leapfrogged Bobby Therrien for ninth. Therrien remains well ahead of Mike Hopkins in eleventh, as no drivers below Therrien have more than seven starts this year.

Despite running the Gen-6 body earlier this year, Travis Benjamin took a trusty ABC-bodied car to victory Sunday. A total of 18 cars were dressed in the new bodies for the 250, with only Kelly Moore not making the starting lineup. In an amusing sidenote, the top ten and top twenty were both a 50-50 split of cars with ABC bodies and Gen-6 bodies, though the greater number of traditional SLM shells broke through at the back half of the field.

With the Oxford 250 over, five events remain on the PASS North schedule, though a combination of budgets, time and the documented “Oxford 250 hangover” may have a lot to do with who joins the back half of the points chase. For now, the PASS regulars get a couple weeks to regroup, with their next race at Oxford on the 15th of September.

WEEKLY RACING: A NICE PRE-250 WIN FOR ROWE, OTHER TRACKS LET OXFORD SHINE

Trampas Demers kicked off the week in racing with a Thursday-night win at Thunder Road International Speedbowl, his second feature of the season. Matt White, winner a week before, was second with Darrell Morin third. Christopher Pelkey landed a 15th-place finish before heading to Oxford for the ACT Tour event Saturday.

Beech Ridge Motor Speedway was one of the local tracks that opted to run their weekly card as scheduled, never mind the racing action up the road. For the second year in a row, Mike Rowe won the feature on the eve of the Oxford 250. Rowe, who just turned 69 and has promised to quit when he can no longer contend, is clearly no closer to calling it a career. Rowe, Beech Ridge title contenders Trevor Sanborn and Dave Farrington, Jr., and Bill Rodgers would pack up to return to Oxford for the next day’s 250.

At Seekonk Speedway, Vinnie Arrenegado, Jr. picked up his third Late Model win of the season, also securing the Phil’s Propane Triple Crown title. In the Pro Stocks, David Darling was up to his old tricks with his seventh feature win of the season. Granite State Pro Stock Series racers Bobby Pelland III (7th) and Angelo Belsito (8th) took advantage of an off week to race closer to home at the Cement Palace.

With racing at Oxford all weekend, though, many tracks chose not to compete, with both White Mountain Motorsports Park and Star Speedway taking the weekend off completely.

Jimmy Renfrew, Jr. won his third Late Model feature in the last four events at Star Speedway, racing locally after the GSPSS JBH 150 at Monadnock Speedway was cancelled for rain. Star was able to dodge the night’s storms, while White Mountain Motorsports Park was not so fortunate, suffering its fourth rainout of the year.

PASS and GSPSS part-timer Craig Weinstein stayed close to home Saturday, winning a Late Model feature at Seekonk Speedway in return for his short drive. Weinstein nipped Ryan Lineham and Tommy Adams for the feature win. In Seekonk’s Pro Stocks, Kevin Casper eked out a win over Dylan Estrella and Fred Astle, with Ryan Vanasse coming home fourth. David Darling was eighth in the 40-lap event. GSPSS competitor Angelo Belsito was 11th.

NEXT ON THE SCHEDULE

The American-Canadian Tour Late Models will run their penultimate championship race Sunday, with the Coca-Cola Labor Day Classic 200 running on the high banks of Thunder Road International Speedbowl.

The Granite State Pro Stock Series also races Sunday with the biggest event of the year, the Rocky Ridge 150 at Claremont (N.H.) Motorsports Park.

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Jeff Brown is a contributor to Short Track Scene. A native of New Hampshire and a long-time fan of New England racing, Brown provides a fan's perspective as he follows New England's regional Late Model touring series.

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