There will be pressure on Fort Kent’s Austin Theriault Saturday afternoon, when he will drive his second of three NASCAR Nationwide Series races for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s JR Motorsports team at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
In addition to having plenty of friends and family on hand to watch him, Theriault will be driving the No. 5 Betbomb.com car — the No. 5 team has won the last two Nationwide Series races at Kentucky and Daytona International Speedway.
Kevin Harvick took the No. 5 car, a Chevy Camaro, to Victory Lane in Kentucky two weekends ago, and Kasey Kahne won at Daytona last weekend.
Theriault wants to make a good impression to move his career along.
“Some might say driving the car that won the last two races can add pressure, but I don’t see it like that,” the 20-year-old Theriault said. “It gives me confidence in the race car. There’s only so much I can do. I put pressure on myself anyway. I want to compete at the highest level.
“The main thing is to give everything I have to the best of my ability. I’m still learning. I know the car is going to be good, and that will give me a better shot. I’ll be able to race on the edge and run against guys I wouldn’t be normally be able to run against if the equipment wasn’t up to par,” Theriault added.
He is excited about racing in front of “a lot of familiar faces” at a facility he considers his home track.
“I know this track better than any other track on the Nationwide Series,” Theriault said.
He has run several races at Loudon with a second-place finish in an American-Canadian Tour race representing his best showing.
That said, he noted driving a Nationwide car around New Hampshire Motor Speedway is very different than his past competitions of driving an ACT car and a Pro All-Stars Series Super Late Model.
“We have limited practice time there, so I’m going to have to make every second count,” Theriault said.
He will be able to practice from 1:10-2 p.m and from 3-4:25 p.m. Friday. Qualifying for the Sta-Green 200 will begin at 10:10 a.m. Saturday, and the race is scheduled to start at 3:30 p.m.
Theriault finished 15th at Iowa Speedway on May 18 in his first JR Motorsports race. He was in line for a top 10 finish but was shuffled back during a late-race restart.
“I should be able to get up to speed quicker on Saturday,” said Theriault, who attended the Kentucky race with the JR Motorsports team in preparation for his last Nationwide Series race at Kentucky on Sept. 20.
“At Iowa, it took me some time to get up to speed and to get comfortable in the car.”
He said there are very few similarities between Iowa Speedway and NHMS.
“They are two different racetracks. Loudon is flatter and a little bit longer,” Theriault said. “The corners are sweeping and wider at Loudon.
“It would be hard to take the (car’s) setup we used at Iowa and use it at Loudon,” he added.
Loudon is a 1.058-mile track; Iowa is .875.
It is difficult to pass at Loudon, so Theriault said it is important the car is working at 100 percent efficiency. He said he needs to avoid making mistakes, too.
“Track position is important. You don’t want to make a mistake that costs you track position, and you don’t want your car to be tight because it will be more difficult to get through the corners,” Theriault said. He noted good pit stops and restarts will be important.
He and his crew chief, Ernie Cope, have high expectations for Saturday.
“I’ll be shooting for a top 10 finish, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we did better than that,” Theriault said. “You always want to keep the door open [for exceeding expectations]. I know I’m going to have a good car.”
Cope was impressed with Theriault’s performance at Iowa and expects him to run in the top five Saturday.
“Everybody progresses differently. He got better as the Iowa race went on. He would have had a top 10 finish if it wasn’t for the last restart. But he learned from that,” Cope said.
Theriault was happy to see Rowley, Massachusetts, native Eddie MacDonald earn his first Sprint Cup ride Sunday at the Camping World RV Sales 301 at Loudon. He has raced against MacDonald on several occasions. MacDonald will be racing for the Go FAS team co-owned by Archie St. Hilaire of Old Orchard Beach and Frank Stoddard of North Haverhill, New Hampshire.
Theriault has driven for St. Hilaire in the past.
“It’s a huge deal for Eddie. Any time you can run in the Sprint Cup Series, it’s a huge accomplishment,” Theriault said.
St. Hilaire intends to use a variety of different drivers over the final 18 races of the season, and he said he considered Theriault a “great guy and a great driver” with a bright future.
Theriault could be included in that picture, though St. Hilaire said he thought Theriault was looking to catch on with well-funded teams that would enhance his chances of notching a good finish as opposed to racing for an underfunded team and struggling for a good finish.
St. Hilaire used to own a Nationwide Series team before teaming up with Stoddard and moving up to Sprint Cup this season.
“They’ve had some pretty good runs this year,” Theriault noted.
When Theriault was asked whether he would be interested in driving a Sprint Cup race for Go FAS racing this season, he responded tentatively.
“I’m not looking that far ahead in my career,” said Theriault. “I’ve talked to Archie over the years, and we still talk.
“Right now, I’m trying to make the best out of this opportunity. I can’t tell what’s going to happen down the road,” Theriault said.
The immediate future for Theriault, following the Sta-Green 200, will be the 41st annual TD Bank Oxford 250 on Sunday, July 20. He finished second in a PASS SLM North race at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway last weekend.