Jeff Gordon’s turnaround impressive since last year’s Watkins Glen crash

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Rewind to last year’s Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen International. Jeff Gordon entered the afternoon winless in 2013 but in the Top 10 of the Sprint Cup standings.

But on Lap 14, Gordon bounced off the outside barrier in the esses before hitting the inside barrier on the backstretch.

The crash relegated him to a 36th place finish, knocked him out of the Top 10 in points, and helped keep him out of that year’s Chase until NASCAR put him into the postseason after the manipulation incident in the final regular season race at Richmond.

However, since that wreck, Gordon has been able to find the consistency necessary to finally capture the fifth Sprint Cup title that has eluded him for more than a decade.

In the remaining 14 races of the 2013 season, Gordon earned a win at Martinsville, three Top-5s and eight Top-10s. Barring his 38th-place finish at Texas in November, he finished no worse than 17th (Michigan) in that stretch and the Martinsville win put him in title contention with three races to go – until his crash at Texas took him out of it.

Gordon’s late-season run showed that a fifth championship was still a possibility, and in 2014, he’s made sure that possibility has grown larger with an additional two wins (Kansas and the Brickyard 400), seven Top-5s, and 15 Top-10s in 21 races.

Altogether, that’s three wins, ten Top-5s, 23 Top-10s and a strong average finish of 9.7 in the 35 races since his accident one year ago at the Glen.

This year, Gordon is comfortably locked into the Chase. He’s been the Sprint Cup championship leader since Pocono in June and has been either first or second in the championship since Texas in April.

And back problems aside, Gordon’s having fun running as competitively as he has been.

This afternoon during Sprint Cup qualifying at the Glen, he immediately shouted “Hell yeah, boys! Whoooo!” after he popped off the lap that would earn him the pole for tomorrow’s Cheez-It 355.

The difference between where he was at this time last year and right now is really remarkable.

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.”