PHOTO: Austin Theriault will be at Oxford’s TD Bank 250 on Sunday, but it won’t be in his regular RPM Motorsports ride. (Justin St. Louis/VMM photo)

PORTLAND, Me. — Austin Theriault probably shouldn’t feel too badly, and he doesn’t. After all, as he pointed out, he’s still just 17 years old.

The Fort Kent, Me., native churned out one of the most impressive rookie seasons in the history of the American-Canadian Tour last year, good enough so that he finished inside the top ten in points and was tabbed for a ride with Georgia, Vt.-based RPM Motorsports as a teammate to reigning champion Brian Hoar. That, after winning a 150-lap race in his first-ever Late Model start at his hometown Spud Speedway track late in the 2009 season.

Expectations were high for a major sophomore splash this summer, and likely rightly so, but for Theriault and his title-winning RPM team, the results just haven’t been there. Through nine starts with RPM, Theriault has just two top-ten finishes and failed to qualify at Thunder Road in May. A pair of crashes at Devil’s Bowl Speedway — the first of which occured on the opening lap when Theriault was turned around from behind after starting in fourth place — handed him the first “did not finish” result of his career. Meanwhile, the car on the other side of the garage that RPM teammate Hoar drives has four victories in eight starts.

There have been some bright spots for Theriault: A drive from 23rd to finish seventh at Lee USA Speedway in April, a march from 20th to sixth at White Mountain Motorsports Park in June, a steady climb from 30th to 16th at Oxford Plains Speedway, and a solid 12th-place effort at Twin State Speedway. Still, though, at this time last year as a rookie Theriault had four top-tens with ACT and a runner-up finish at Beech Ridge.

This year, on paper anyway, he appears to be an ACT afterthought. Not so with his family’s car, though.

Theriault has made three non-ACT starts this year driving the same chassis that served him so well in last summer, grabbing a victory Spud in May and finishing second in a 40-lap feature at Oxford last week. The car performed so well, in fact, that Theriault has decided to drive for his family’s team — and not Rick Paya’s RPM operation — at Sunday’s $25,000-to-win TD Bank 250 at Oxford.

“I was very happy with the car last Saturday. I started 25th and I don’t think I’ve ever had a car that good,” Theriault said at the annual TD Bank 250 Media Day gathering in Portland on Wednesday

He was quick, though, to reassure that his association with RPM Motorsports is not over. Far from it.

“At Beech Ridge [the following Saturday] I’m going to be back, I’m finishing the year with RPM. There’s no issue there,” Theriault said. “Honestly, I just think I feel more comfortable [with my own car] at Oxford. I was so happy after Saturday that I said, ‘You know, I think we ought to take [our] car because it’s not far off from where we need to be with it.’ I don’t know if you can translate over, but we definitely can learn some things that apply to the RPM car. Rick has great equipment. I don’t think anyone has better equipment than he does.”

As good as Theriault says Paya’s cars are, though, his own luck is equally bad. He’s hoping to turn that around with a solid finish in Sunday’s TD Bank 250.

“I talk to Brian, and Brian says he doesn’t believe in luck, but I’ve just been in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Theriault said. “I think at the beginning of the year we maybe expected too much, but I think things are turning around in the right direction. At Twin State we didn’t have a good finish but the car was great. At White Mountain the car was great. Devil’s Bowl, too, but we wrecked. It’s just wrapping things up [that we’re missing]. From looking on the outside it looks like we’re not having a good year, but I’m confident in the RPM team.”

Theriault says that driving for his family’s team at the ‘250’ will help serve as a reset point for the rest of the year with RPM. It’s a no-points, no-pressure event with lots of opportunity for seat time and learning experience.

“We’re about halfway through the season and I’m expecting things to start pumping along here, some top tens and top fives,” Theriault said. “Looking back [at 2010], we really had an outstanding year. The races we didn’t make, last year I was really disappointed and down on myself, but looking at a perspective of how young we were as a team and how inexperienced I was as driver, I don’t think we could have expected any better. Even this year I think I’m a better driver than I was last year. Every week I learn something. I think we have some time, but things should start turning. We should start getting the top tens and top fives soon.”

And no better place than to get one at the TD Bank 250.