Austin Theriault celebrates after winning an ARCA auto race at Daytona International Speedway in February 2017. On Sunday, the Fort Kent native will race in NASCAR’s Cup Series for the first time. Terry Renna/Associated Press

Austin Theriault remembers his first reaction to stock car racing, when he rolled a little 4-cylinder car onto a track as a middle-schooler.

“The first thing I remember was going out on the track and seeing everybody work on the cars and I thought, ‘Wow, these guys are really serious,’” Theriault said this week from North Carolina. “I was 13 years old, and I was there to have fun. I thought racing was just a fun thing to do.”

Things have changed dramatically for Theriault. On Sunday, the 25-year-old Fort Kent native will make his debut in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, the major leagues of stock car racing in the United States. Theriault, who will be racing in a Rick Ware Racing car this weekend, will become the first Maine driver in 15 years to be in a Cup series starting lineup when he fires up his entry in the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon.

After years of racing part time in NASCAR’s feeder system, smaller national touring series and in his home state at the Oxford 250, Theriault will finally realize his dream of racing at NASCAR’s highest level.

It’s been a struggle to get there.

“I think it’s really starting to set in as the days come closer,” said Theriault, whose racing career appeared to stall out just a few years ago. “As my to-do list becomes shorter and I have more time to think about what’s actually going to happen at the track this weekend, that’s when it really starts to set in.”

The last driver from Maine to make a start in NASCAR’s Cup Series was Newburgh native Ricky Craven. Craven, a two-time Cup race winner who competed regularly in the series for a decade, finished 30th at Talladega Superspeedway in his final start.

That was in 2004.

“I wouldn’t have expected it would have been that long,” said Craven of the drought for Maine drivers. “I’m happy for the Maine fans, that they’ll have that hometown flavor (this weekend). He’s a remarkable young man, and I’ve always been in his corner.”

ROAD TO THE TOP

Theriault began racing in Maine, first in weekly divisions at Spud Speedway in Caribou while still in middle school, a 45-mile trip southwest from his Fort Kent home. He then graduated from entry-level divisions into purpose-built race cars, racing in a Late Model race at Oxford Plains Speedway in the summer 2009.

He was just 15 at the time.

“We started sixth, and I remember telling him, ‘Austin, it’s 150 laps and it’s a long race,’” recalled Mickey Green of South Paris, who was Theriault’s crew chief for his four years on the American-Canadian Tour, a late model stock car series. “I told him, ‘Let’s just ride, save tires, and inside 50 to go, we’ll see how we stack up.’ Well, on lap 50, we’re driving by them. We get to lap 100 and he’s still leading. The caution came out on lap 130 and we were second.

“We ended up 16th. But I never had to tell that kid to save tires again.”

It was a one-off appearance in ACT that season for Theriault. He’d spend the next three years racing with ACT, contending for the championship each summer and winning his first Late Model race at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway in Scarborough in 2012.

During his final ACT season, Theriault was part of a driver development organization owned by 2012 NASCAR Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski. He ran Super Late Models — one of the top short-track racing divisions in the United States — on the road to part-time runs in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series and NASCAR Xfinity Series, the equivalent of NASCAR’s Double-A and Triple-A levels in baseball.

Gary Crooks fielded the Super Late Models for Brad Keselowski Racing when Theriault was there. He was Theriault’s crew chief for two seasons (2012-13), and also supervised Theriault in his Crooks Racing shop, where Theriault worked on the cars as part of his agreement with BKR.

He noticed Theriault’s talent, but also noticed something else about the 18-year-old driver.

“His tenacity,” Crooks said. “Most kids will do the work in the seat, but they aren’t interested in anything outside of that. Most everybody who came through here during that time, they were obviously talented race car drivers, but Austin was the only one who would get out of his car and work on it.”

Theriault ran nine races for BKR in the NASCAR Truck Series in 2015, with four top-10 finishes.

But when 2015 closed out, so, too, did his time under the Keselowski umbrella. He ended up competing in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series the next season, a regional touring series a step below the Trucks. His results there were unimpressive for second-tier Hattori Racing Enterprises, a team fielded by Japanese owner Shigeaki Hattori.

It appeared Theriault’s path to NASCAR stardom, or even a driving career, had stalled.

But in 2017, he hooked up with former Cup driver Ken Schrader and agreed to drive for Schrader’s team in the ARCA Racing Series, a national touring series not affiliated with NASCAR but utilizing many of the same tracks and cars.

Theriault blossomed. He won seven of the 20 ARCA races that year en route to the series championship. He won at Daytona International Speedway during Daytona 500 week, and he also won at Kentucky Speedway during another NASCAR companion event.

As impressive as that season was – including wins in four of the final six races on the schedule to lock up the title – it once again left Theriault with a road block.

He had no full-time racing lined up for 2018.

NETWORKING PAYS OFF

Theriault’s the pursuit of his dream was far from over.

“Obviously, he could drive a race car and had talent,” said Green. “But I’m telling you, his biggest talent was just his drive to succeed and not to give up. Once he wanted something, he was laser focused. He was 100 percent racing, racing, racing.”

Like Green, Crooks said Theriault had more “determination and drive to succeed” than any up-and-coming driver he ever worked with. But there was something else with Theriault, which may have been an obstacle.

“Austin always had the perception that he’s the smartest guy in the room, no matter what room he’s in,” said Crooks, owner of Crooks Racing in Mooresville, North Carolina. “Things could have been a little different for him had he accepted that maybe that’s not always the case at the beginning. There were probably some lessons to be learned in there.

“I have a great deal of respect for Austin. He’s just exactly what I said. He’s tenacious, he’s determined. He’s not proud – he will do whatever he has to do to stay in the sport he loves – driving, crew chief, spotting, driver coaching, whatever it takes. He would be an asset to somebody. All the stuff that got in his way when he was younger, I think he’s over that. I think he recognizes that.”

Theriault spent last season and the first half of this season networking everywhere. Racing isn’t always about getting results, winning races or winning championships. At its highest levels, money matters.

Now, his past partnership with Bangor Savings Bank has paid off in the form of sponsorship.

He not only has a guaranteed starting spot in a Cup race this weekend, but he’ll be racing at Loudon, where he’s previously competed in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series, NASCAR Trucks and NASCAR Xfinity Series events. He also finished second there in an ACT Late Model race.

“At the end of the day, where I’ve ended up isn’t necessarily because of things I’ve tried to do – it’s more of the small steps that I didn’t always know where they were going to lead to,” Theriault said. “In a way, that’s what drives me. It’s because I like to win on a small scale that sometimes I’ve lost in a big way. But if you continue with small wins over the course of time, those small wins can overcome a big loss.

“My path could have gone 10 different ways, but it also could have gone 10 worse ways, so you can’t always look at what you could have missed out on. Everybody has struggles in their careers. It may not have matched what you would have hoped, but the reality is that the bus is going to leave the station sometimes while you’re busy waiting for a bigger bus.”

Craven, who was inducted into the Maine Motorsports Hall of Fame earlier this year, recognizes a little bit of his own determination to succeed in Theriault.

Theriault may have been in fourth grade when Craven ran his last race, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t relate.

“I’m very happy for Austin. This opportunity is well-deserved,” Craven said. “He handles himself exceptionally outside of the race car, and I like the way he drives. He’s very conscientious, very talented. I don’t believe he’s gotten the opportunities of late that he’s deserved. It’s a tough industry, but he’s very, very determined. I truly believe that.”