Different Point Of View: NASCAR Spotter Derek Kneeland Back For Another Shot At Oxford 250

RaceDayCT Northbound 550 BannerCrossing under the checkered flag before anyone else, gas pedal still mashed to the floorboards, he allowed himself a quick look in his mirror. And that’s when it hit him.

This was Derek Kneeland’s Oxford 250 moment.

It wasn’t a win, a podium finish, a pole position or even a heat race win. Kneeland’s Oxford 250 moment came in 2013, when he won the last-chance qualifier. He started deep in the field and plodded his way to a 15th place finish at night’s end.

This Sunday at Oxford Plains Speedway, Kneeland, a native of Windham, Maine, hopes to have another moment in the 42nd annual AIM Recycling USA Oxford 250.

kneeland incar brms (1)“I remember that I started fifth in that last-chance race, took the lead and led it the rest of the way,” Kneeland said of that moment two years ago. “I looked back and saw Kelly Moore, Spencer Davis and Curtis Gerry in the mirror. It was unbelievable for me. I was screaming across the radio, ‘We just made the Oxford 250!’

“I was pumped. The chills I got were amazing. It was like a huge weight lifted off. All I want this weekend is the same thing — keep my nose clean and have a chance to make all 250 laps. When you’re standing in that line when they call your name (during driver intros), hearing the cheers, it’s just really cool. It’s nice to have the chance to be able to keep doing that.”

Kneeland is accustomed to hearing cheers on race day — even if they’re not cheers for him. His full-time job is with Ganassi Racing as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series spotter for Kyle Larson’s No. 42 car. He’s always wanted to be a driver, though now he’s happy to have one or two cracks at the cockpit each summer. Each year when the Sprint Cup Series schedule is released, and one of its off weekends aligns with the Oxford 250, he starts getting ready.

After two seasons of renting a car from Gary Crooks Racing (he failed to qualify for the 250 last summer), Kneeland purchased a car formerly driven weekly by Bill Rodgers at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway. The car has been prepared by Jamie Rouleau this summer, giving Kneeland some added motivation this weekend.

For the first time, this Maine native who now lives in Mooresville, N.C., will be tackling the state’s biggest stock car race with his own operation.

“I grew up in Maine, I grew up racing in Maine,” said Kneeland, 29, who started in go-karts and raced in support divisions at Beech Ridge. “Even though it’s Maine, a lot of people don’t get that this is the biggest race in the country for asphalt late models besides the Snowball Derby. But it’s more money to win here, more money to lead laps, and — as far as I’m concerned — the competition kicks the south’s ass. If you win up here, you’re beating the best.”

It’s been a whirlwind trip to the top of the spotter’s stand for Kneeland.

He last raced at Beech Ridge, in a Limited Sportsman class, in the mid-2000s. Without a lot of money backing a family-owned hobby, he was growing restless — and unwilling to drain his family’s bank account for Saturday night trophies.

He took a job working for a graphics company in North Carolina, and not long after, he got a call from Corey Williams — a Boothbay, Maine, native who today heads the speedway body program at Hendrick Motorsports — as Williams was heading south to go work for Andy Santerre Motorsports. Williams was racing his own Super Late Model in some Pro All Stars Series races in the south, and Kneeland spotted some for him.

Through all of that, he met Matt Benjamin, Freddie Query and Brian Scott. Scott’s family offered him a job spotting Camping World Truck Series races, and from there Kneeland’s career took shape.

By 2007, he was working full-time as a spotter.

“In that job, obviously, teams can get any frequency during races,” Kneeland said. “They’d scan us, they’d hear me, and that produced more opportunities with other teams. Now, I’m three years in with Ganassi Racing, and I’ve done a lot of things with a lot of great people. It’s more of a dream come true with the stuff I wasn’t even really dreaming (earlier) about doing.”

When Juan Pablo Montoya left Ganassi at the conclusion of the 2013 season, Kneeland was paired up with Larson. The rookie, a budding sprint car superstar and K&N Pro Series East champion, was on the verge of cracking the win column late last season while playing the role of Chase spoiler.

The momentum of the late 2014 season didn’t quite carry over into this year for Larson, but Kneeland says the team is showing signs of progress as another Chase looms on the horizon.

“I think when we get back to Chicago, Texas, Charlotte — some of the mile and a halfs, you’ll see him compete,” Kneeland said. “If we don’t make the Chase — I really hope we do, though — I think you’ll see our team taking big chances and trying some big things on the car to try and help us for next year. Ultimately, once you’re not in the Chase, while you’re still trying to win and do the best you can for your sponsors and everybody else, you’ve really got to start looking forward to the future and finding speed so you can win races next year.”

But next year is next year, and even Darlington — with Larson’s buzz worthy “Days Of Thunder” throwback Mello Yello paint scheme at the ready — and Richmond are still off in the future. This week, Kneeland’s off week, is about the Oxford 250.

Once a driver, always a driver, Kneeland said.

“Hardest part is probably what I’m doing now — I get this media stuff and all this attention, I get entered on the list and PASS mentions me (in their PR). You get the pressure from that angle. Ultimately, though, I just want to make the show. I’ll be damned if I’m not driving hardest 20 laps I’ve ever driven to get into the race.

“Don’t get me wrong, if you’re a driver, you’re a driver. A racer is a racer. With getting our car this year, and having been able to go test at Beech Ridge, go race at Beech Ridge, to get comfortable with it and get a feel for how it reacts — it’s given me the chance to knock some of the dust off. I think that’s a big thing for me. The last couple of years it was show up Friday and practice, show up Saturday and practice and then try and get in on Sunday. I already feel better about that.”

He’ll have some familiar faces around him this weekend, too. Rouleau will be at the track to offer support, and Ted Musgrave Jr., who works at Ganassi, flew in Thursday night to crew chief for the weekend. Kevin Alden, who spotted for Austin Theriault in ACT and PASS competition over the years, will be on the radio. He’ll be surrounded by family and friends, and he’s got the support of Larson, Michael Annett and Brandon Jones, among others.

But there’s also one more thing he’s got going for him: Hope.

“Bryan Kruczek won at Oxford a few weeks ago. Everyone’s got Jeremy Davis as a darkhorse on Sunday. Mike Hopkins was really fast there in the last race, and I keep up with all that stuff,” Kneeland said. “I want to know how those ‘little guys’ are doing.

“It’s great to see the no-name guys, the guys that aren’t used to winning PASS races or other big races. It gives a lot of us some hope.”

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