The Newburgh native was making a triumphant return to his home speedway, back in the NASCAR Cup Series for the first time following a four-month layoff that season. Celebrating his return with only the second pole of a decade-long career in NASCAR’s top series was vindication – for himself and auto racing in New England.

“I remember people in the industry saying they’d never seen anything like the reception I got when I went home,” Craven said this week. “Without question that was because of my heritage and my racing and competing at places like Oxford, Speedway 95 and Unity, and even beyond that the tracks of New England.”
The New Hampshire track opened in 1990 and served as a springboard for Craven’s career.

Craven won three times at the track, including a 250-lap race in 1991 – the year he won the old NASCAR Busch North Series title – by finishing ahead of five-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Labonte and future longtime Cup stars like Jeff Burton, Davey Allison and Ernie Irvan.

“I anticipated that track with so much enthusiasm, and the track rewarded me,” Craven said, adding that there a drought in top-end New England talent at the Cup level following his retirement in 2004. “I think there’s been a void, for sure. I can speak to the support I had during my driver career being outstanding there. I’m happy for the Maine fans, as well, that they’ll have that hometown flavor (with Austin Theriault).”

This weekend at New Hampshire four drivers with New England roots will be on the starting grid for Sunday’s Foxwoods Resort Casino 301, including reigning Cup champion Joey Logano. Two of those drivers – including the Fort Kent native Theriault – are making their Cup series debut at the same Loudon track where they first watched big-time stock car racing from the grandstands and later competed in support divisions as their careers were starting to accelerate.

For Theriault, who saw NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin win the final race of his career at New Hampshire exactly 10 years ago, there’s no place he’d rather make his first Cup start. He has admitted that he did at times wonder if he’d ever get the opportunity, despite winning races and competing for championships across the country.

Austin Theriault of Fort Kent, left, talking to teammate Andy Seuss, makes his first career start Sunday at NASCAR’s top level. Travis Barrett/Morning Sentinel

“Yeah, sure,” said Theriault, now 25. “I think it’s the case with all people that are striving for things and are honest with themselves about it. But at the same time, it’s one thing to question or have doubt, but it’s another thing to stop trying. That’s two different things.

“You can’t always control your reality. But you can control what you’re going to put forward.”

Ryan Preece, a Berlin, Connecticut native and former NASCAR Whelen Modifed Tour champion now driving full-time in Cup as a rookie, shines as a bright example of what never giving up can produce. Preece turned a part-time NASCAR Xfinity Series opportunity into wins at Bristol (Tennessee) and Iowa, garnering enough attention to land his current Cup series employment.

And Preece believes New England should be well represented in NASCAR’s major leagues.

“New England’s probably one of the most underrated places for auto racing throughout the United States,” said Preece, who will start 28th on Sunday. “I think it has one of the biggest fan bases for racing in general. I think when you come here – when I pulled in and saw all the campers – there’s always a really good crowd of people here.”

Beyond enthusiastic fans willing to sit through a three-day weekend of near 100-degree temperatures to watch racing across four different divisions, plus a dirt track on the speedway property with two more divisions competing, there are a number of people behind the scenes in the sport with New England roots.

Old Orchard’s Archie St. Hilaire owns Go Fas Racing with New Hampshire’s Frank Stoddard for driver Corey LaJoie. Hallowell native Scott Maxim is the director of track support for superpower team Hendrick Motorsports, which has seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson in its fold. And there are countless crew members from Maine, New Hampshire and beyond throughout the garage on both the Cup and Xfinity Series sides.

“I think Dick Berggren’s museum out there, the Northeast Motorsports Museum (at NHMS), really shows how present motorsports is in the New England area,” said Logano, who grew up in Middletown, Connecticut, and won two NASCAR K&N Pro Series races at New Hampshire on his way up the ladder. “It’s special to be a part of that heritage. It’s really cool to be able to see that more and more.”

For Theriault and Andy Seuss of Hempstead, New Hampshire – his Rick Ware Racing teammate this weekend – this weekend is about being home where it all started for both of them. And they’re doing so at stock car racing’s highest level.

They may not have had the pole-winning, feel-good moment Craven did at New Hampshire 21 years ago, but there’s still a buzz – and crowds of northern New England race fans checking out the backside of the garage area occupied by the smallest teams and typically void of spectators on typical race weekends.

“We have a really good opportunity this weekend to build some momentum – not necessarily on the race track with finishing position, but more about the excitement it creates,” Theriault said. “This is more for my fans who have been watching my career over a period of time, and the sponsors I’ve had relationships with over the past couple years as well.

“They’re all finally, finally getting a taste of motorsports at the highest level in the United States. That’s actually a really big thing.”