Derek Griffith stands near his car during a recent race at Oxford Plains Speedway. Griffith finished second in last year’s Oxford 250. Contributed photo

OXFORD — Derek Griffith loves the Oxford 250. As for Oxford Plains Speedway itself, the venerable host to the 47th version of the event this Sunday, he’s not quite as passionate.

“This place has just been really tough to me. It’s kind of beat us down,” Griffith said last weekend, prior to a 100-lap Super Late Model race at the track. “It’s my Achilles heel. It’s just a really tough place.”

Griffith, 23, of Hudson, New Hampshire, seems to be finding his comfort zone with the track, just in time for the season’s biggest event there.

He finished second in last year’s Oxford 250, to three-time champion Travis Benjamin of Morrill, and he finished on the podium in two races there in a seven-day span last week. After winning five of 17 Pro All Stars Series races a year ago and finishing runner-up in the championship hunt, this could finally be Griffith’s chance to etch his name in the history books.

As much as Oxford has frustrated him over the years, his Oxford 250 aspirations haven’t lessened.

“Look at the people who’ve won this race — (NASCAR Cup Series drivers) Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, just tons and tons of people who mean something to racing. You hope to be there one day, too, is all,” Griffith said. “It’s one of those things, you’ll always be remembered as an Oxford 250 winner. It would be monumental for the rest of my life, even if I make it to wherever.”

Griffith has NASCAR aspirations.

Currently, he’s competing part-time in the ARCA Menards Series, the modern-day incarnation of what was once the NASCAR Busch North and K&N Pro Series. In six starts for owner Chad Bryant, he’s posted five top-10 finishes in ARCA, including a career-best fifth in his most recent start on Aug. 1 at Toledo (Ohio) Speedway.

Griffith has also competed twice in the prestigious Snowball Derby in Florida and gone to the Canadian Short Track Nationals last summer.

As much as he welcomes the challenges of those high-profile short track events, there’s something about the Oxford 250 with its combination of big-time appeal and local flavor that Griffith adores.

“It’s as much of a gamble as anything,” said Griffith, who didn’t even qualify in his first Oxford 250 attempt in 2015. “People who are working at mom and pop shops get excited about winning this race. People who race only 10 times all year, all of them at Oxford, say to themselves, ‘But we could go win the Oxford 250 and win it if we get lucky and everything goes right.’ You can’t do that at the Derby.

“This race is prestigious. but it’s also homey for me because of how many times I’ve watched it, seen it, been in it, and because I’ve had so many laps here.”

Derek Griffith of Hudson, N.H., celebrates his win in the Honey Badger Bar & Grill 150 at Oxford Plains Speedway in Oxford in September 2019. The win was the first PASS win at the track for Griffith. Travis Barrett/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Those laps, those countless number of laps in previous Oxford 250s (he’s qualified for four straight), in PASS races at the track, in weekly division events, can’t be discredited. If there’s anything about Oxford’s finicky, flat surface that Griffith — and others — have learned, it’s that the .375-mile oval can lull you into a false sense of security.

Griffith grew up on faster New Hampshire tracks with more banking. His first win in a Super Late Model was at Lee USA Speedway, and he counts quarter-milers Star Speedway in Epping and White Mountain Motorsports Park in North Woodstock among his favorite facilities.

When it comes to Oxford, he’s taken his lessons from 2017 Oxford 250 winner Curtis Gerry of Waterboro and others like him, be it Scott Robbins of Dixfield (2002 winner) or Dave Farrington Jr. of Jay (winner of four straight starts at OPS entering the week). When it comes to Oxford and the five dozen cars entered for the 250, you can’t worry about everybody else — and you can’t try to drive it any harder than it wants to go.

“As funny as it sounds. when you practice you don’t know too, too much (about your car),” Griffith said. “You may have an idea, but it’s when you go out for the heat race that you find out where you’re at. You can go out in practice and be top of the charts all day Friday and Saturday, and then you go out in your heat race on Sunday and finish sixth with everyone pulling away from you. There’s almost no rhyme or reason for it.

“You’ve just got to race the track. Don’t worry about anything else. Just get to where you’re fast and that’s good. That’s it.”

Sometimes, it’s the simple things that spark true love.

For Griffith, he’s hoping keeping it simple this weekend will give him the one victory he’d love to have more than any other.

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