For Travis Benjamin, anything less than a victory is no longer acceptable.
Twice before, the 2012 PASS North champion stood in Victory Lane by the end of the Oxford 250. Benjamin has countless short track victories but winning the crown jewel of northeast Super Late Model competition was a transcendent moment for his career.
“It’s just unbelievable really,” Benjamin said. “For someone from Maine racing, you grow up as a kid and that’s the race you always have circled on the calendar. My father used to race and we went to that race a few times and never qualified. I even went there one time and didn’t qualify myself. It can be frustrating.”
Those times that he didn’t qualify seem to be in the rear-view mirror, though. Over the last four years, the Morrill driver has tasted the glory of winning twice and come close in the other two. In 2013, Benjamin won his first 250 after leading 84 laps behind the wheel of the No. 17 for Ron Benjamin. A year later, he sat on the frontstretch of the three-eighths mile flat oval celebrating with the check and trophy once again.
“You never really think of winning it, you just think of being a part of that race in general,” Benjamin said. “The first time I won, I went there the second time and when I rolled on the track I had chills. The first time you win it people say you got lucky. But when you win it the second time, it’s like, take that everyone.”
After two straight wins, Benjamin unloaded there in 2015 and was fast once again. However, a crash put his efforts down. His bid for three straight victories ended in a 27th place finish.
Fast forward a year later, Benjamin is leading the 43rd annual race with just 10 laps to go. But some strategy played into this one. Benjamin’s team elected to pit a little bit earlier than some others and it put him out front with full faith in his car. After leading a race high 159 laps behind the wheel of his Petit Motorsports No. 7, Benjamin lost the lead and eventually the race to Wayne Helliwell Jr. with just six laps to go.
Stuck in the middle of lapped traffic, Helliwell caught the break when Benjamin got caught behind a car on the outside lane and had to lift and settle in behind. He wasn’t able to mount a charge back by in the final laps.
“We were really good last year. Wayne has won every race there is and that team is very smart,” Benjamin said. “They knew the only way they could beat us was taking tires and sure the lapped car hurt us, but the difference was Wayne coming in for tires. If we had one less caution I don’t think we lose that race. That’s what makes that race so great. There’s pit strategy and a lot of good cars out there.”
For most, second is great in a race with such prestige like the 250. Many of the top names in racing, including Monster Energy Cup Series drivers Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, have won the race. But Benjamin was a little bit disappointed today about the way that race played out.
“Once you win it once, second is no good anymore,” Benjamin said. “When I looked around after the race, everyone was so bummed out. I told them all that there were thousands of people that would like to be in our shoes. Winning it again would be something very, very special. It’s hard to describe.”
Although the results for the last few years have been solid, the day doesn’t always start the right way for Benjamin. The Oxford 250 is one of the few Super Late Model races that does not include a time trail session for the teams. The qualifying process and tradition is actually rather simple. At the end of the driver’s meeting, all the drivers meet and each one of them reaches into a bag and picks a chip out. Each chip is numbered.
The number you pull out of the hat determines your starting position in the heat race for later in the afternoon. There are a handful of heats, a few consi’s and then the last chance race before taking the green. Benjamin has been a part of qualifying in multiple different ways before. Whether it’s from the heat, consi’s or last chance, more often than not, he’s made it in.
“The last few years, I went there and got dead last for a draw,” Benjamin said. “When Glen Luce won his Oxford 250 he drew last in his heat race and still did it just like I did. Knowing that it’s possible, it doesn’t bother me that much, but it’s a lot easier if you get a good draw. When I draw last, I can’t even get my seatbelts on because I’m so nervous. The first thing is getting into the race, nevermind how you do during the race.”
Two times a winner before, Benjamin is clearly confident as he seeks to become only the fourth driver to win the race three times. On July 30th, Benjamin rolled into Oxford’s winner’s circle in a PASS race this season. The 250 tune-up gave his team, along with others, one more shot to get the car ready.
“The Oxford 250 is the one race you prepare for all year long. When we first raced at Oxford we struggled this year. We were fast but the car fell on its face with 50 laps to go,” Benjamin said. “I talked to the crew chief and I thought we had a good idea of what was going on. The last time we were there we eliminated that problem and we were great for the 150 laps. That gives me a lot of confidence going into it. You need a car that will last until you come in and take tires.”
What would it mean to win a third time? Everything. But even that is hard to put into words.
“It would be unbelievable… a dream come true, ” Benjamin said. “I never dreamed of winning one or two of them. It’s one of those races that growing up as a kid you just want to be a part of it. There are thousands of people that would like to be in my shoes.”
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