Casual sports fans, even casual fans of stock car racing, probably look at where Austin Theriault finished on Sunday and had one of two thoughts.

“What’s the big deal with this kid? He qualified 36th out of 37 cars.”

“He must not be as good as everyone thinks he is. He finished …35th…”

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing is not a joke. It is both big business and ultra-competitive. And while it’s clearly not sports car racing at Daytona or Le Mans, with three different classes of cars on the track racing all at the same time during endurance events — it is, for those inside the NASCAR garage, very much the same thing.

The days of 40 cars showing up believing they can win vanished decades ago, along with the hopes of a rag-tag team showing up at their local track and hoping they can somehow make one start all year and have enough good fortune to finish 10th.

Instead, there are very clearly three different tiers in every Cup series field in 2019.

You have the elite teams — the Joe Gibbs Racings and Penske Racings of the world — showing up to compete both for wins and championships. You have the mid-tier teams, the ones on the playoff bubble, like a JTG-Daugherty Racing or Leavine Family Racing trying to finish inside the top 20 in the standings, secure more funding to expand their operations and be in the playoff conversation within a couple of seasons.

And then there are the smallest teams and the smallest budgets, like the Rick Ware Racing team Theriault made his series debut with Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, clawing to simply be part of the show and the lucrative payouts. According to court documents provided in a messy bankruptcy filing last season for BK Racing, teams can earn as much as $100,000 for simply finishing 36th in a 40-car field.

When Theriault and his No. 52 Bangor Savings Bank Chevrolet rolled onto Sunday’s starting grid, he was wasn’t trying to win. He was only trying to finish a spot or two ahead off the half-dozen other cars in the same boat as his.

“Not everybody is racing for first place,” Theriault said in anticipation of his first career Cup start. “There’s a race for 30th, a race for 20th, a race for the Lucky Dog, for the wave-around. Some of the smaller things that we’re going to be focusing on are things in our own particular race, where we’re running against the teams that are equal budget to us or a little more. If you can beat them, it’s a win. For me, it will be cool just to be around them.”

It was not a weekend without challenges for Theriault, obviously. His car had issues in technical inspection before Friday’s opening practice, essentially sidelining him for all of that session as his team worked the car into compliance. His first full lap on the track was during qualifying. On Saturday, a fuel issue further truncated his on-track time. And, given the small weekend budget he was operating on, Theriault never put new tires on the car during practice, leaving him with questions about whether or not the car was ever getting any better when he was on the track. Then there was Sunday, when Theriault was forced off the track with mechanical issues.

Why, then, does an aspiring driver like Austin Theriault even bother? What’s the incentive for spending months planning the logistics of a race weekend, cultivating sponsorship relationships in order to find enough funding to get yourself in a car no fewer than a half-dozen other drivers have already been in this season alone, just to know going in that a 30th-place finish is the highest hope you can have?

For a driver used to running up front, winning races and championships all the way through his career, how on earth is that experience worthwhile?

Simple: It’s like starting your career all over again, back when you ran a little four-cylinder rent-a-wreck at your local short track. In order to train for a marathon, you’ve got to take the first step on the pavement.

“I want to be able to leave the track this weekend, regardless of the finishing position, and say everybody had a great time,” Theriault said, “If I leave and the sponsors were really happy and I’m going to look back and say I brought the car home in one piece and learned each time I was at the race track, then that’s my goal.”


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