LOUDON, N.H. — Like a baseball pitcher trying to avoid the sticky-stuff-detecting eyes of umpires, or a hockey defenseman trying to get away with an extra cross-check, Darin Russell knows that pushing boundaries is necessary in any competitive endeavor.
“I like the challenges,” said Russell, a Sunderland, Mass., product who tunes the engine for Brad Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford Mustang, a key part of the team looking for a second consecutive Foxwoods 301 victory on Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (3 p.m., NBCSN).
With NASCAR these days using Hawk-Eye cameras rather than tape measures to scan cars for compliance, Russell and his cohorts are hunting for smaller edges than ever. In the last decade, engine technology evolved from carburetion to fuel injection. The Next Gen car, set to be unveiled at Daytona next year, promises to be another game-changer. The pandemic shrank traveling NASCAR teams from 12 people to five, making experience and versatility a must.
Russell, 40, has all that, and lots of persistence after 22 years on the road. His backstory is like a lot of northerners who got into racing: He came from a family that loved going fast and working on cars.
Growing up just north of the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, he was steering trucks around a neighbor’s farm at age 12 when he saw his first race at Loudon. He was under the hood at 14, infatuated by a racecar in a local auto shop he might have taken out for a few unlicensed spins.
“When it came to using a clutch,” he said, “I was a little more advanced at an early age.”
Russell also loved UMass basketball and the Red Sox, but his love of engines sent him from Franklin County Tech in Turners Falls to Nashville Auto-Diesel College, now part of Lincoln Tech, in Tennessee. In 1998, the Thanksgiving of his senior year, Russell and his roommate knocked on doors at the Mooresville, N.C., business park where most of the NASCAR teams operated. The hopefuls brought a stack of résumés, but most of the buildings were dark since the season had just ended.
Fortunately, Russell recalled, he ran into someone he thought was a janitor opening a locked office. It was veteran engine builder Mike Egge, who was helping a coworker who forgot his key. Egge liked the 19-year-old and his pal (who is now out of the business) so much he offered them spots in the engine shop at Robert Yates Racing.
“My jaw hit the ground,” Russell said. “I would have swept floors, I would have worked on tires, anything.”
He began his apprenticeship tearing down cars but soon found his first engine-tuning gig with Darrell Waltrip’s No. 66 car. After four years, Russell spent two with Evernham Motorsports and Casey Kahne’s No. 9, and has been with Team Penske the last 16 years.
“My first year or two, I didn’t say anything,” Russell said. “I was just taking it all in and learning as much as I possibly could. If you work hard in racing, you’re going to move up quick.”
Kyle Larson’s time?
This has been the summer of Kyle Larson. The 28-year-old, who this week extended his Hendrick Motorsports deal for next season, was a runner-up at Darlington, Dover, and Circuit of the Americas before winning four races in a row (Charlotte, Sonoma, Texas, and Nashville). He has never won at Loudon, and has led 16 laps in 10 career starts. Larson will start 10th on Sunday . . . No one has won more Cup series races at NHMS than Kevin Harvick (four, tied with Jeff Burton). The Stewart-Haas Racing veteran has not won this year, after winning a career-high nine times last year. A win would cement Harvick’s playoff standing. He, Austin Dillon, and Tyler Reddick are fighting to stay in the top 16, while Chris Buescher, Matt DiBenedetto, and Ross Chastain are on the outside looking in . . . Of the three New Englanders racing on Sunday, only Joey Logano (Middletown, Conn.) has hoisted Loudon the Lobster, doing so in 2009. Logano starts 15th, while Ryan Preece (Berlin, Conn.) and Rookie of the Year contender Anthony Alfredo (Ridgefield, Conn.) begin 25th and 27th, respectively. New Jersey’s Martin Truex Jr., who considers the Magic Mile his home track, starts second. He has seven top-five finishes in 27 starts at NHMS . . . Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Burton, and Steve Letarte will be in the booth for NBCSN’s broadcast team . . . Prerace TV coverage will include a piece on broadcaster Ken Squier (Waterbury, Vt.) and his Family Farm Innovation Fund . . . Jeb Burton won the pole for Saturday’s Xfinity Series race, the Ambetter Get Vaccinated 200 (3 p.m., NBCSN). He was runner-up to Foxwoods 301 pole-sitter Kyle Busch last weekend at Atlanta. Busch said it was the last Xfinity race of his career . . . The Whelen 100 race starts at 12:45 p.m. on Saturday.