Rusher in the pits

Action Sports Photography | Courtesy of Roush Fenway Racing Kevin Richardson, seen here during the NASCAR Xfinity Series 3M 250 at Iowa Speedway in May, has spent three seasons with the Roush Fenway Racing team.

Action Sports Photography | Courtesy of Roush Fenway Racing Kevin Richardson looks on during the Winn-Dixie 300 at Talladega Superspeedway.

KANNAPOLIS — Kevin Richardson loves being the underdog.

It’s a role the 29-year-old Elizabethtown native has thrived in over the years as a football player and now as a NASCAR pit-crew member.

“Being the underdog is a tough role, but I love having that chip on my shoulder,” Richardson said. “I’m always waiting for the next opportunity to accomplish something great. The underdog story is always the best one.”

A former walk-on football player at Appalachian State University in Boone, Richardson quickly became a household name. He led the Mountaineers to three consecutive FCS national championships, breaking records along the way as a running back. He holds the school record for the most career rushing yards (4,804), the most rushing yards in a single season (1,676 in 2006), the most rushing touchdowns in a single season (30 in 2006), and the highest career all-purpose yardage (6,104). He also had a hand in the Mountaineers’ 34-32 upset victory over the then No. 5 Michigan Wolverines in 2007 at the Big House.

But after a short stint in the CFL, Richardson decided to stop carrying footballs and opted for tires instead.

A front tire carrier on the No. 16 Ford for Ryan Reed in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Richardson enjoyed his first career win in February’s Alert Today Florida 300 at Daytona International Speedway. On June 20, he got his first win in the ARCA series with a victory at Chicagoland Speedway in the Racing SCOTT 150.

Pitting his football career against his budding career in NASCAR, Richardson said it’s been quite the transition.

“It’s kind of hard to compare the two because you have 42 opponents in NASCAR,” said Richardson, who has spent three seasons with the Roush Fenway Racing team, working with Reed and former Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne.

“In football we got used to winning against the one team we were playing. I can do the best pit stops all day (in a race) and we’ll still finish 15th or 20th. It’s tough, so you cherish the wins a lot more.”

As a black male and graduate of the NASCAR Drive For Diversity Crew Member Development program, Richardson relishes the opportunity to break down barriers in his sport.

“It’s pretty cool to be a part of the program,” Richardson said. “It means a lot to be able to teach people what I’ve learned and share those experiences to prepare the next generation of pit-crew members.”

The program is headed by Phil Horton, a former college football trainer who has worked on NASCAR teams for more than two decades.

“Coach Phil Horton showed me the basic fundamentals of pitting a race car,” Richardson said. “Kind of like Tim Duncan in basketball, I took time to learn the little things and learned to have fun and compete with some of the best guys in the NASCAR series.”

While he loves the sport now, Richardson admittedly wasn’t always a fan.

Mark Speir, head football coach at Western Carolina and an assistant at Appalachian State during Richardson’s years, encouraged the running back in 2008 to tryout for a NASCAR pit crew.

“Coach Speir is a big NASCAR fan,” Richardson said. “I never really was (a fan), but now I am. I’m a student of the game. Every weekend is different with situations you wouldn’t think of.”

Pit crewmen also have a day job during the week, and for Richardson that’s putting decals on race cars. That’s how he provides for his girlfriend, Kellysha, and 6-year-old son, Zavion.

“I enjoy everything I do,” Richardson said. “Seeing the different states, seeing the fans and kids smile when you give them a lugnut. I love it. This is how I eat, how I feed my family. Each day I want to be better at it than the day before.”

Richardson and the Reed race team sit a No. 9 in the Xfinity points standings through 14 races. It’s the drive for a championship and spot in the Sprint Cup series that motivates the young pit-crew member.

“I want to be at the top of the game,” he said. “I want to have some fun at the top level and have the opportunity to get out there to make things happen. We’re not where we want to be yet, but we’re having a blast and working hard to get there.”

Finding out quickly that NASCAR is a sport that’s more than a bunch of left turns, Richardson said consistency and growth are the key to success in his new field.

“With football you can start off bad in the first quarter and regain it later in the game,” he said. “In NASCAR, each time you go out there, there are no timeouts and there’s no halftime. Each time you step over the wall you have to be ready. That’s why I go out and give it all I have each weekend.”