OXFORD — In a battle waged between two drivers with just one glaring omission on their resumes, it was Johnny Clark who emerged victorious.
Clark, of Hallowell, took the lead with less than 70 laps remaining Sunday night at Oxford Plains Speedway and held off a furious late rally from nine-time track champion Jeff Taylor, finally winning the one race that had eluded him as he drove to the checkered flag in the 47th annual Oxford 250.
It’s the 38th Pro All Stars Series win for the six-time series champion, but his first in the Oxford 250 in 13 tries dating back to 1997.
“We came into this believing,” Clark said. “I still can’t really believe it, though. It’s a little weird. With COVID, the place isn’t going nuts. I saw the back pit going nuts, which was awesome. It’s still the Oxford 250. It’s awesome. I’m just tickled.”
The track limited attendance in the front grandstands to just 200 because of the state’s large-gathering guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic. The seating capacity is 8,000.
Clark took control after a long green-flag run ended with a caution on Lap 180. Every lead-lap car but one headed to pit road, but Taylor, who had blistered the competition – both at the start when he lapped all but 13 cars in the first 80 laps, and again on older tires when he rallied back to the lead on Lap 161 – inexplicably pitted twice.
Instead of lining up behind Clark for the Lap 181 restart, Taylor set sail from the tail end of the 44-car field.
He got close enough to have a shot in the final laps, but the lost track position was ultimately too much to make up.
“I’m 99 percent sure I went through the stop sign (at the end of pit road following the pit stop),” Taylor said. “I figured I better stop and penalize myself before they had to. I don’t know if that’s the way it would have worked – I really don’t know. It just comes from not racing enough.”
“If he hadn’t have done that, he’d probably be sitting here instead, wouldn’t he?” Clark wondered. “My guys kept telling me the lap times, and we were the fastest car at the end of the race. When I could check out to half a straightaway, then I could back it down a little bit and save for a (potential) green-white-checkered finish.”
Taylor finished second for the third time in 19 Oxford 250 starts. He also was the runner-up in 1995 and 2012.
Joey Doiron of Berwick finished third, with Dave Farrington Jr. of Jay taking fourth. Farrington’s streak of wins in four consecutive starts at Oxford Plains, both in weekly competition and a PASS race two weeks ago, came to an end. Hermon’s Mike Hopkins rounded out the top five.
D.J. Shaw, Ben Ashline, Trevor Sanborn, Garrett Hall and Gabe Brown finished sixth through 10th. Alan Tardiff, Curtis Gerry and Derek Ramstrom were the only other cars to finish on the lead lap.
The win was Clark’s first at Oxford Plains Speedway in touring series competition since July 2005. That was also the year when Clark, now 40, posted his career-best finish of second.
In that 2005 Oxford 250, Clark was similarly leading with less than 20 laps to go when another of Oxford’s legendary racers chased him down. Mike Rowe – the winningest driver in track history with 152 career victories – rattled a young driver into making a mistake that cost him the win.
Clark said that wasn’t about to happen again.
“I wouldn’t let it get in my head,” Clark said. “Ten to go, five to go, I was just thinking, ‘Come on, guys, I’ve been good to you, so be good to me.’ When I got the white flag, it was just time to bring it home.”
That he did, after not letting Taylor’s early pace and ability to battle back for the lead on older tires get to him.
In the end, Clark stuck to the game plan. He pitted on Lap 91 for right side tires only, then took on four tires on Lap 180. He got the track position he needed and checked out when it mattered, letting Taylor, Farrington, Doiron and others battle for the chance to take a crack at him.
As the laps wound down, those drivers never got their crack. Clark’s final margin of victory was nearly three-quarters of a second.
“We weren’t bad at the beginning of the race, but (Taylor) was stellar,” said Clark. “I knew that was what was going to bite us, if anything, was Jeff starting inside the top 10. We had to go and just stay on the lead lap … and let the guys in the pits do their jobs, and it’s up to you after. That’s exactly how it worked out.”
For Taylor, it was another near-miss in the one race he’s never won at Oxford Plains, where he has more championships than anybody.
“Almost,” Taylor said. “We’ve had cars through the years that more than easily could have won, but this is probably the fastest car I’ve had at the end in ones I’ve managed to finish.
“There will be bigger tragedies in life than this.”