- Bill Stephens
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MADISON, Ill. -- In 2001, Darrell Russell began his professional drag racing career by winning his first Top Fuel start for new employer -- retired five-time champion Joe Amato. Russell won the NHRA Winternationals in Pomona, Calif., after being chosen to fill the seat in Amato's dragster from among a host of qualified candidates. Ironically, Amato had been urged to hire Russell by the then-reigning Top Fuel champion, Gary Scelzi, who also won in his Top Fuel debut at Pomona in 1997 -- beating Amato in the final round.
Russell, from Hockley, Texas, went on to win the 2001 NHRA Rookie of the Year award and finished an impressive sixth in the points. But over the past two seasons, the 36-year-old former alcohol dragster standout has been thwarted in taking home a Top Fuel championship. With wholesome good looks and a polite, middle-American presence, Russell has all the tools necessary to become a genuine superstar in the NHRA POWERade series. Recently, he and his team led by crew chief Wayne Dupuy, have seen a sudden upswing in performance, giving Russell a new attitude about challenging for the 2004 POWERade title.
After a winless string dating back to Seattle of 2002, Russell won two weeks ago in Columbus, Ohio, with a steady parade of elapsed times in the 4.50's. He defeated points leader Tony Schumacher in that final round and moved from seventh to fourth in the Top Fuel standings. In Englishtown, N.J., last week, he lost to two-time champion Larry Dixon -- the eventual race winner - -in the semifinals but wasn't outrun, as Russell was beaten on a holeshot 4.66/316.45 to 4.64/319.98.
This weekend, at the 8th Sears Craftsman Nationals at Gateway International Raceway outside St. Louis, Russell's newly found performance resurgence gave him the second No. 1 qualifying spot of his career with Friday's 4.51 elapsed time at over 328 mph. With the 2004 season now reaching the halfway point, Russell believes their recent successes bode well for a strong second half.
"Wayne has been working constantly on getting our combination dialed in and to adjust to the new Goodyear tires we switched over to this year," Russell said.
"Consistency is always the key to winning out here and the thing that we're really happy about is that we've been able to go quickly and get down the racetrack almost every time.
"Winning in Columbus was such a boost to the team it was a win we needed to build up our confidence. When you have that, it usually leads to more good things happening."
Russell came into St. Louis trailing Tony Schumacher by 237 points for the Top Fuel points lead. It would be a stunning accomplishment for Darrell to move into championship contention with 12 races remaining in the season, but based on what he and his team has achieved lately, you won't see them counting anything out just yet.
Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN and ESPN.com.
Darrell Russell may not be the Top Fuel favorite this year, but he's making a run this weekend at Gateway.