Column and Photo By Terrill Covey
Lee, NH – Kyle Busch has never been a big fan of finishing anywhere other than first place, but Friday night the two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion had to settle for the bridesmaid role as Hudson, NH hot shoe Derek Griffith took home the $10,000 to win Keen Parts 125 at Lee USA Speedway.
After chasing Angelo Belsito and Joey Doiron for most of the race, Griffith charged to the lead on a late-race restart after Doiron selected the outside lane for the restart, and Busch worked his way around Doiron as well to secure the runner-up spot.
“It feels good,” Griffith said of the win. “I think (Busch) is one of the most talented race car drivers, in general, of all time. He hasn’t seen that car or the track before today and he goes out there and is really good. He just lays eyes on it today and comes out and is stout.
“He’s won hundreds and hundreds of races – late model stuff, Xfinity, trucks, Cup – not many people have a pedigree that substantial. It’s damn cool. I’m pumped. So it shows our little team from New Hampshire does alright.”
Busch was disappointed with a second-place finish, but he said he enjoyed competing in the Pro Stock.
“Thanks to Keen Parts and Chevrolet and Fisher Weir for being on the hood. We had a good solid night, it just wasn’t quite enough.”
Doiron was not as happy with his finish. He chose the outside on a lap 94 restart, allowing Griffith to his inside, and after the initial start was called back due to a false start by Griffith, Doiron said he didn’t get the grip he needed to hold onto the lead. Griffith got away, and Busch got around the outside of Belsito, then quickly dropped down to follow Griffith through the hole into second.
“I shouldn’t have taken the top on that restart,” Doiron said. “I had gotten the lead from (Belsito) and I honestly thought he was a little bit better than Derek at the time. They called back the first start and into turn one I got super free and tried to make it up and got up into the marbles. I don’t know if I just didn’t get my tires cleaned up enough. It’s just one of those things, I feel terrible for my guys. IF the yellow didn’t come out, we probably had it.”
Early on in the night it looked like Auburn, Mass. driver Angelo Belsito set the pace – a frantic pace – at the head of the field. Doiron was able to get past Belsito on a lap 41 restart, when Belsito ran him high, and Griffith punched it 3-wide. Belsito had to back out and Doiron cleared to the lead with Griffith behind him.
Both Griffith and Doiron said the pace that Belsito set early on made it hard to pace themselves through the 125 lap race, but both drivers have had their share of success at Lee USA Speedway and were able to adjust.
“(Belsito) ran a really, really hard pace,” Griffith said. “I just kept pressure on everybody in front of me until they messed up. Kyle (Busch) kind of hit the front stretch wall and gave me room to get by him, but really, the rest of them it was all pressure. Everything we got done tonight was putting the pressure to people until they made a mistake. Joey was good on the restarts, but for some reason our car just wrapped the bottom so well on that lap when I needed to, and he washed up, and that was that. I knew Kyle was coming at the end, but we held him off.”
“I definitely had to go a little harder than I wanted to at the beginning,” Doiron said. “I never got a good opportunity to ride. I didn’t feel like I was pushing super hard, but at the same time I didn’t get to do what I usually do here. I had to go a little bit harder than I wanted to and it might’ve bit me at the end. I definitely felt like I had the second best car behind the (Griffith). (Busch) just wheeled the hell out of it at the end. That’s probably why he races on Sundays.”
In addition to Griffith, the support division winners also had their day on the big stage. In the Six Shooter division, Christin Destefano won over Paul Childs and Steve Miller Sr.. Geoff Rollins won the NHSTRA Late Model battle for the belt race over Milton Duran and Andrew Morin, and Dave Cameron won the Ridge Runner feature over Heath DeButts and Carl Gagnon.
In a race riddled with top talent from throughout the northeast, Kyle Busch might not even have been the biggest draw in the field for many local fans. Busch, the former Oxford 250 winner, was joined by fellow Oxford 250 champions Wayne Helliwell Jr, Joey Polewarczyk, and Eddie MacDonald, as well as Pro All Star Series champions Ryan Kuhn, Doiron, and Griffith. But regardless of who they came to see, fans were packed into the 3/8-mile oval to watch their heroes do battle.
For Busch, who doesn’t do as many short track appearances as he used to, it was a rare opportunity to get out and have some fun.
“it’s just scheduling. Scheduling is the biggest thing,” he said. “With my kid racing as much as he does it’s hard to do, but he’s got a race this weekend down at home so they didn’t come this weekend, so I had a free night to come out and have a little fun for myself. I haven’t done it as much lately because I sold all my cars. I don’t have anything anymore. I really don’t enjoy coming out and doing it with somebody’s stuff because I always want to make sure my guys are doing it, and doing it right. But these guys tonight were really good so we had a good night.”
Busch was joined by his NASCAR spotter Derek Kneeland, a Maine native who looked forward to racing with Busch as well as some familiar faces from back home. Kneeland finished 14th, and although he was disappointed with the finish, he was happy to be back behind the wheel.
“It’s awesome to be here. It was cool last year we were able to make it happen with Tyler, and Archie (St. Hilaire) had asked me if I thought I might be able to get Kyle once he knew I was going to be spotting for Kyle and I asked Kyle before the season even started, and he said, ‘Absolutely.'”
While getting back in the car was fun for Kneeland, it wasn’t the outcome he was looking for.
“I love driving race cars and I am highly frustrated that I finished where I did. I want it so bad, and everybody comes up to me and says, ‘Well, you don’t get to do it very often,’ but it’s the racer in me. It’s never good enough until you get to where you want to be. But fun, absolutely. I didn’t have to spot. I got to have fun.”
The impact of Busch’s presence was not lost on his fellow competitors.
“He’s a racer at heart,” Griffith said. “You see it on a day-to-day basis with him. There’s no fluff with him, no bullsh-t. That’s not really a common thing in NASCAR nowadays. I got a taste of it the last year or two, and he’s the first one to tell you what he thinks and what’s going on. And he’s a short track guy.”
Helliwell said Busch’s presence at the track put a spotlight on Lee USA Speedway that can only help the track, fans and sponsors.
“It’s great for the community and the track,” Helliwell said. “His name brings all these people, and that’s what we need. This sport has gotten so expensive and the younger generation isn’t here like it was. So, if it takes someone like that coming in once or twice a year to keep this place running – we all need a place to play – I thank him for that. He hasn’t gotten too big on his high horse to come and run with us. We appreciate that.”