Hopes for Chase bid starting to flicker for Denny Hamlin

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Denny Hamlin’s already slim margin for error in his quest to overcome an early-season back injury and make the Chase for the Sprint Cup may now be down to zero.

On Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, Hamlin ran a paint design that fallen driver Jason Leffler drove with for Joe Gibbs Racing when he debuted their still-ongoing FedEx sponsorship in 2005. But Hamlin was unable to make an impact in the Quicken Loans 400, finishing 30th with a car that could never make him a factor.

“We changed everything,” Hamlin’s crew chief, Darian Grubb, told NASCAR.com. “We changed shocks, bump stops, everything and we never affected it really. So we’ll take it back to the shop, tear it all apart and see if we can find something.”

Hamlin is currently 26th in the Sprint Cup standings, six spots out of where he needs to be in order to enter the conversation for a wild-card spot in the Chase. The two drivers between 11th and 20th place that have the most wins are eligible to earn those particular berths, and with 11 races remaining in the regular season, it could officially be desperation time for Hamlin and his No. 11 JGR squad.

Going into Michigan, Hamlin had recorded finishes of 34th at Dover (where he had sat on the pole) and eighth last weekend at Pocono. He needed to follow up strong on that Top 10 at the Tricky Triangle, but instead, he was unable to make up ground.

Next up is Sonoma, a track where he has never won and has finished outside the Top 30 in his last three starts.

Theriault clinches ARCA title before finale at Kansas

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) There is no long, convoluted story about how Austin Theriault came to Ken Schrader Racing, forging a team that so dominated the ARCA Series that it captured the title simply by showing up for the finale.

“We both wanted something to do,” the folksy Schrader said with a smile and shrug before Friday night’s race at Kansas Speedway. “He didn’t have a car to drive and I didn’t have a driver.”

So, they solved each other’s problem.

Theriault hopped into the seat and proceeded to win seven times over the first 19 races, building such a lead on his nearest challenger that he sewed up the title at Kentucky. And that made for a rather enjoyable weekend at Kansas, where all the pressure was off their team.

Along the way, Theriault became the first driver to win at a superspeedway, short track, dirt track and road event in the same season, and he swept the superspeedway and short-track challenges.

If there was something to win, he won it.

“I hoped we’d have a shot at it and it’s proved out this year that we’ve really exceeded anybody’s expectations,” Theriault said. “We had some things to work on early. We kind of dusted off a bit, went back to work. We had some time between Daytona and the mile-and-a-halfs that came up later in the season, and we realized where we were strong and where we had to work.

“But in the end it came back to pure dedication, I think,” he explained. “The amount of time it took behind the scenes to make this happen.”

The 23-year-old driver from Fort Kent, Maine, knows something about dedication. He appeared to be on racing’s fast track, scoring a Truck Series ride a few years ago for Brad Keselowski, when a terrifying crash at Las Vegas left him with a broken back and sitting on the sidelines.

The best ride he could find last year was in the K&N Pro Series.

It was at a trade show in Indianapolis last December that Theriault ran into Schrader, who was busy putting together a team for this season. They had dinner a couple nights later and, Schrader said, it was his wife Ann who came away impressed by the yes-sir, no-sir driver.

“My wife doesn’t go to all the races,” Schrader said. “After we talked she said, `I like that guy. How good is he?’ She doesn’t know. I knew he was racing well in Keselowski’s truck, had an unfortunate wreck, had to sit out a bit. I told her, `That’s somebody who could make us very happy next year.”‘

Theriault delivered on that promise.

They weren’t the only ones happy Friday, either. Zane Smith earned his second pole of the season, beating teammate Sheldon Creed to earn the top spot for the Kansas ARCA 150, while 20-year-old Natalie Decker announced a full-time ride with Venturini Motorsports next season.

“This is obviously a big step in my career,” said Decker, who made six starts as a rookie this season. “I’m confident and ready for this next move. After tonight my focus shifts to next season. We’ll be ready to go at Daytona.”