Jimmie Johnson looks to stop skid and earn first win of ’14 at Darlington

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Jimmie Johnson has been on a heck of a ride the last three races.

He dominated at Fontana, leading 104 laps, only to suffer a tire issue and finish a disappointing 24th.

The following week at Martinsville, where he has eight career wins, Johnson again dominated, led 296 laps, only to come up one position short, unable to hold off eventual winner Kurt Busch and ultimately finishing runner-up.

And then there’s what happened in this past Monday’s rain-delayed race at Texas. Johnson was following Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., heading into Turn 1 on Lap 13 when Earnhardt mistakenly hit water-logged infield grass and turned right into the retaining wall.

Because Johnson was so close behind Earnhardt, his car suffered damage when struck from debris from Junior’s incident. That included grass across the front end and a dented windshield – including a bent windshield mounting bracket – caused by rubber from Earnhardt’s tire that was destroyed when it hit the grass and bounced off the edge of the track.

How does Johnson analyze what’s happened to him in the last three races?

“There’s definitely an ‘ouch’, but it’s more from a position where we hate to see opportunities slip away,” Johnson said during Friday’s weekly media session at Darlington Racway. “It doesn’t hurt our confidence. For us, and I think most teams, when you’re that close and have a shot to win, and know that you have fast race cars and you don’t pull into Victory Lane, it’s a confidence booster.

“The end result isn’t what you want or what you like, but you know your cars are fast and your pit stops are good. You have all the pieces there and it’s just about running the distance of the race and getting the job done.”

It’s hard to believe that Johnson, who has won six Sprint Cup championships and 66 races, has yet to win a race in 2014.

He has a good chance to accomplish that at Darlington Raceway in Saturday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 Sprint Cup event, a race he’s won three times.

“I’ve been through various challenges in my Cup career and one marker I always look for is clearly fast cars and ultimately top 5 finishes,” Johnson said. “And I firmly believe that if you’re running in the top 5, you’re going to have your shots at winning races.

“And even a step further, top 3’s. But our goal, since I’ve started, has been if we can run in the top 5 all day long, we’ll have a shot to win the race. And it’s led to a lot of victories for us.”

With that kind of mindset, could career win No. 67 be on Saturday night?

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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.”