SCARBOROUGH, Maine – Dan McKeage is a driver conflicted.
On the one hand, he realized one of his racing goals by winning the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series track championship at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway last summer. That season-long effort earned him a trip to Charlotte, N.C., for the NASCAR awards banquet, where he was wined and dined in and around the NASCAR Hall of Fame for the better part of a week.
On the other hand, McKeage's championship season came without a single trip to Victory Lane in the track's Pro Series division for Super Late Model-type cars. In fact, the last few years have gone by for McKeage without a win – so many, now, that he can't even remember.
"I don't know. 2009 maybe?" McKeage says before catching himself. "No. 2008 maybe? I'm not really sure."
And there is the conflict.
"I wish I could just race for wins," said McKeage, who was supposed to open the 2011 defense of his title before fog and drizzle washed out the season opener Saturday night at the track. "It would make it so much easier, but I've always chased points. From '94 on, I've always done it.
"I get in where I can fit in (on the track), do the best I can, race for Top-3s and Top-5s, and the chances at wins will come – but it's hard to win races with that mentality. You're cutting people a lot of breaks which probably saves you on body panels, but the win checks – those are what pay the bills."
This, however, isn't just your usual driver who has a target on his back from his other competitors after taking down a track title. McKeage, of Gorham, Maine, had back surgery less than two months ago to repair a balky disc.
He could barely practice his own car last month when the track held a PASS-sanctioned Sportsman race, and he's still not allowed to work at the roofing business he owns. Technically, he's not even supposed to drive his street car – doctor's orders.
But McKeage isn't willing to set racing aside.
"I think me staying healthy is going to be the hardest thing this year," he said, noting that the only exercise of any kind he is allowed to do is walk. "I still feel a little iffy now and again, but it seems like this is where I want to be. I feel better in that car than I do at home.
"I injured myself initially in '05, and rest cured me. This time, 10 days of rest and I ended up having an injection in the spine that was supposed to make it better. That didn't work, so they cut a piece of the disc out. I've had this open wound in my back... so I've done a lot of (walking) to try and keep in shape. It was 30 days the first time before I got into a car. I'm about 50 days into it right now.
"I'm feeling a lot better, but good race cars make it feel a lot better, that's for sure."
McKeage's back is feeling things in more ways than one. Not only is he still recovering from the surgery, but he also knows that the competition at Beech Ridge has squarely placed a target there.
He's in the unfamiliar – and uncomfortable position – of being the hunted and not the hunter.
"The biggest challenge is just getting in position to race for a championship – and then the last four or five weeks (of the season) is just murder," McKeage said. "Once you finally get there, though, it seems like nobody knows why you worked so hard to get to the championships until you actually win the championship.
"I'd rather be the one chasing the other competitors rather than being chased. But it's been fun both ways, anyhow."
McKeage talks about getting off to a fast start this season, about trying to win a couple of races right out of the box to get the competition to start worrying. But he also knows that there are strong teams at Beech Ridge, and he knows that winning is never automatic.
Which brings him back to his conflict.
"Maybe that's why we ended up winning the championship," McKeage said. "Maybe that's why we hadn't done it in the past, where I wasn't as patient where I could be. I think the key to it, really, for us is having a strong start and not changing so much on the car worrying about what other people are doing.
"It makes race day that much more fun – when you can have the car stand up on jacks during practice and know that the car is going to be fast when you go out there and you're going to be ale to race for Top-3s."