Kevin Richardson knows pressure—and how to excel under its weight.
Richardson also learned what it’s like to experience a David-versus-Goliath moment long before he joined the over-the-wall crew for Chris Buescher’s No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford.
As a senior running back at Appalachian State University in 2007, Richardson gained 88 yards on 24 carries in Appalachian’s 34-32 road victory over fifth-ranked Michigan in what is generally considered one of the greatest upsets in the annals of college football.
With his days of carrying footballs in the past, Richardson now carries tires as part of Buescher’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series effort. A graduate of the NASCAR Drive for Diversity pit crew program, Richardson was part of another major upset in his role as a tire carrier—Buescher’s unexpected victory in the Aug. 1 rain-shortened event at Pocono Raceway.
So which was the bigger upset, Appalachian’s victory over the Wolverines or Buescher’s win at the Tricky Triangle, where he and crew chief Bob Osborne had to outfox 39 other drivers?
“Michigan was big, but Pocono was big, too,” said Richardson, who holds Appalachian State school records for career rushing yards (4,804), single-season rushing yards (1,676 in 2006), career all-purpose yards (6,104) and touchdowns in a single season (30).
“I guess you could say they were kind of equal. You never expect it—I didn’t—but it did happen, so I would call them equal.”
The Mountaineers’ victory over Michigan propelled them to their third straight NCAA Division 1-AA national championship. Similarly, Buescher’s win at Pocono, which vaulted the rookie driver into Chase contention, has ratcheted up the pressure on the entire team.
“It was similar to Appalachian State, where we played football,” Richardson said. “When we won that first championship (in 2005), we had a target on our back. It amplified everything.
“When we won that race, we also had targets on our back. We’ve got to have less mistakes. We got to be more in focus and in touch with what’s going on. We have to be at our top level.”
To make the Chase, Buescher must remain in the top 30 in the Sprint Cup points standings after the next two races, with the cutoff coming on Sept. 10 at Richmond International Raceway. After losing ground with a sour engine on Sunday at Michigan, the reigning NASCAR XFINITY Series champion currently is 30th, seven points ahead of 31st-place David Ragan.
If Buescher manages to stay in the top 30 and qualifies for the Chase, he’ll do so with the aid of three Drive for Diversity graduates. Raphael Diaz and Richie Williams, a former Appalachian State quarterback and teammate to Richardson, are rear tire changer and jack man, respectively, on Buescher’s pit crew.
And they’re all acutely aware of just how much the stakes were escalated by the Pocono win.
“It’s always big to win a race, and with that helping us get into the Chase, that’s a big game-changer,” said Williams, who holds an NCAA record for passing efficiency across all divisions, thanks to a 40-for-45 performance against Furman in 2004.
“We’ve just got to prepare, make sure everything is right before the race and then business as usual—minimize mistakes and try to do your best.”
Pocono was perhaps most significant to Diaz, who grew up playing soccer but turned to racing after an injury clouded his future in that sport. Diaz was part of Buescher’s XFINITY Series championship team last year. He, along with Mike Russell, became the first D4D graduates – driver or crew member – to win a NASCAR national series championship.
“It meant a lot, especially being with Chris last year in the XFINITY Series, and him being a rookie in the Sprint Cup Series,” said Diaz, also the first alumnus of the D4D pit crew program to be part of a Sprint Cup race-winning team (with Carl Edwards in 2014).
“We needed it. It helped people get more knowledge of this crew and this team, pay more attention, and hopefully to get more sponsors and more opportunities.”
Richardson, Williams and Diaz took different paths to the highest level of NASCAR racing. Former Appalachian State assistant coach Mark Speir (now head coach at Western Carolina and an enthusiastic NASCAR fan), encouraged Richardson to try out for the Hendrick Motorsports pit crew combine.
The star running back made the final eight but didn’t survive the last cut to six prospects. Afterwards, he gravitated to Drive for Diversity and Rev Racing, the program’s operational arm.
Prepared by his participation in the D4D pit crew program, Diaz worked his way up through late model stock cars and the NASCAR K&N Pro Series before reaching the national touring series level.
“Without the pit crew program, I don’t think I would be where I am now,” Diaz said. “That gave me the chance—practice, training, coaching. It was very important.”
Williams got an introduction to Rev Racing pit crew coach Phil Horton from former Appalachian State football player Mike Metcalf, now a gas man for Chip Ganassi Racing. Though Williams is a rangy 6-foot-3, he doesn’t have the prototypical jack man’s body build.
“I’m the complete opposite of most jack men,” Williams acknowledged. “I’m one of the smaller ones out here. I’m tall, but I’m not as big. I use my length for leverage, and it helps me out moving around the car.”
As ex-athletes in other sports, all three men know the value of learning the basics, and all three credit the pit crew program as a crucial part of their development as NASCAR crewmen.
“It teaches you the fundamentals,” Richardson said. “It teaches you more about the sport. It teaches you a little of the history. It’s a bond. It’s like a family.
“D4D is starting to get involved with a lot more of the big teams, and that’s great for the organization.”
Like Appalachian State, Front Row Motorsports is the little engine that could. But winning a race was just the first step. Now it’s a matter of keeping Buescher in the top 30 for two more races.
If and when that happens, Richardson, Williams and Diaz will be key elements in that equation.