By Matt Weaver, www.autoweek.com
It wasn’t too long ago that Austin Theriault might have questioned if his time in NASCAR had prematurely ended.
The 23-year-old is still working to return to the highest levels of the sport after a violent crash at Las Vegas in the Camping World Truck Series cost him two months of seat time and some serious momentum. He’s not back in NASCAR, at least not yet, but he has taken the ARCA Racing Series by storm this season, winning three of the first nine races and leads the championship standings by a significant margin over Dalton Sargeant.
But again, this is a comeback story.
Theriault had landed a part-time ride with Brad Keselowski Racing in 2015 and had been widely impressive during his tenure, but he was forced to take a step back when the Vegas incident broke his back and sidelined him until the season-ending race at Homestead.
He opened 2016 with a one-off for BKR at Daytona but spent the remainder of the year grinding through a challenging campaign in the K&N Pro Series for Hattori Racing.
But those efforts, and his reputation as a gritty blue-collar short-tracker, garnered the attention of veteran team owner and former Cup Series veteran Ken Schrader, who needed a full-timer to race for the ARCA championship in his No. 52 car.
And now, halfway through the season, that’s exactly what Theriault is delivering.
"I don't like looking back on that stuff," Theriault said of the injury. "I just have a different perspective. I prefer to stay focused on the here and now. Who knows what the future is going to bring, you know? I will say that being challenged early in my career, fortunately or unfortunately, has given me a perspective and patience that not everyone gets to learn.
"I really think that's helping me find success this season."
Theriault first connected with Schrader at the Performance Racing Industry trade show in Indianapolis back in December. Schrader was working to finalize his ARCA plans and Theriault needed a full-time ride. At face value, it was a perfect fit.
"Austin tapped me on the shoulder and asked me what I was doing," Schrader said. "So I said, 'I have about 20 things going on, but you can be number 21. What's up with you?'"
Schrader and his wife, Ann, formally met Theriault for dinner a few days later, and both came away thoroughly impressed with the young veteran. When Ann asked who he was, Schrader gave away his 2017 plans.
"Someone who can probably make us very happy this season," he recalls saying.
Theriault opened the season with a victory at Daytona and captured two more at Elko and Madison. His worst finish is ninth, and his average finish is 3.5. The Schrader team doesn’t like to talk championships, at least not this early in the summer, but their driver is making quite the case.
That said, Theriault hasn’t received any early silly season phone calls for some of the potential openings in NASCAR next season.
"That's just given me motivation to work harder," Theriault said. "As you know in this industry, things can change on a dime, and I've seen the ups and down myself. So we just have to get it done on the track and then we shouldn't have to worry about it."
If Schrader has it his way, he wants to send Theriault back to NASCAR with an ARCA championship in tow.
"If this was my script and I got to write it, that's exactly what I want to see happen," Schrader said. "It's not surprising that he hasn't gotten those kind of calls yet.
"That's not because he doesn't deserve it, but usually the only phone calls that get made this early in the year start by asking how much money you're bringing to the team. But our goal is to win a championship, and I want to be able to write the script that sends him back up there because he's really one impressive driver."