Topeka: Russell aiming to defend title

TOPEKA, Kan. - Darrell Russell is trying to stay optimistic. He knows the team can perform better than they have lately, and he knows that will start to show. In the first eight events of the 2003 NHRA POWERade Drag Racing season, Russell has ...

TOPEKA, Kan. - Darrell Russell is trying to stay optimistic. He knows the team can perform better than they have lately, and he knows that will start to show. In the first eight events of the 2003 NHRA POWERade Drag Racing season, Russell has advanced past the first round four times, winning a total of seven rounds. He has one final round appearance.

In 2002, Russell won three races in five final round appearances en route to a No. 6 finish in the Top Fuel standings.

"This has been a very disappointing season as of now, but we did start to see some positive strides in Bristol (Tenn.) and Atlanta," Russell said of the semifinal and final round appearances. "We had a good showing in Bristol and things are looking promising. We have two good races under our belts and I think the team is going in the right direction. This team is going to rebound, no question about it, we know how to go out and make the car run and win races, we just need to get it all lined up. It's just taking longer than we expected."

Russell has Topeka in his sights as a place to turn the season around for the Bilstein Engine Flush dragster team. He wants to defend his Top Fuel title at the 15th annual O'Reilly Summer NHRA Nationals presented by Castrol GTX at Heartland Park Topeka, May 22-25. Russell, Tony Pedregon and Troy Coughlin are the defending winners in their respective categories for the $1.9 million race, the ninth of 23 events in the $50 million NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series.

Russell earned a winner's trophy at Topeka in 2002, but that doesn't mean he gets any free rounds this season.

"I think what you did last year doesn't really hold water to what you have to do this year," Russell said. "You still have the same guys out here who run well week in and week out. We have to do what we did last year, which was put together four good qualifying rounds and four good elimination runs in order to win the race. Whether you won a race or not in the past, you have to be on your game every weekend just to compete."

There is, however, some comfort for Russell in making a return trip to America's heartland.

"Some places you go to and as a driver or even as a team, you just do well no matter what," Russell said. "We can't buy a round win at my home track near Houston, and I don't understand that. But knowing we are going back to Topeka is a good feeling because we have good data from that track and that can help us put together another victory.

"But the way this sport changes and the way the technology changes, sometimes the data is not enough, so we have to be prepared to make tune-up changes when we get to Topeka."

Before the start of the 2003 season, Russell and his crew chief, Wayne Dupuy, each signed long-term deals to stay with the Joe Amato-owned team. That pleased both the tuner and the driver.

"I think you can learn to work with someone on a professional level, but if there is solid chemistry between people, you will know it right away and it will make a positive difference for the team," Russell said. "This is a great situation for me and Wayne and I think it will continue to get better as the years go on. He is a young crew chief and I am a young driver and we are going to get better together."

For now, the team is going back to the basics. Russell thinks that will help the team defend the title in Topeka, and then some.

"I think we are off on our fundamental tune-up right now," Russell said. "We were poking around and we were trying to get back to the baseline and we got a little messed up in the process. We are getting closer. The races in Bristol and Atlanta helped and while I don't want to say that we have it all figured out, I think we are headed in the right direction.

"We are getting back to the fundamentals of racing and that has already improved the car's performance."

-nhra-

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Series NHRA
Drivers Troy Coughlin , Joe Amato