Mike Cook ’08 was nearing the finish line on a math degree at the University of Maryland when the Terps Racing team sent him on a detour.

The son of a Maryland waterman who repaired boats and motorcycles, Cook had drag and road racing experience but had poured most of his youthful energy into playing music. One day on his way back from a UMD library, he came across the club that designs, builds and races a Formula-style race car, and it changed his path. He joined, and later led, the student group and switched his major to mechanical engineering.

“It took me awhile to find my way,” he says, “but once I did, it lit a fire under me.”

Cook is now an engineer with Kurt Busch, the No. 41 car driver for Stewart-Haas Racing in NASCAR and defending Daytona 500 champion.

“The sport is so complex and specialized,” says Cook, who interned with Dale Earnhardt Inc. and did automotive testing at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland before coming to Stewart-Haas in 2014. “Even with all my experience, I feel like I’m still getting up to speed.”

Preparing for a NASCAR race, he says, is like starting a new college course each week and having a final exam on Sunday. Cook, based in North Carolina, is the crew’s second engineer and handles activities ranging from fuel mileage to data analysis and dashboard configurations. He spends the beginning of each week coming up with specifications, testing tires and air pressure, setting up cockpit controls and researching previous races. At each racetrack, Cook helps with practice and qualifying rounds, and sees the difference between what works in a wind tunnel but not outdoors, where a gust of wind or warm day can add precious time.

“Most of the speed of a race car comes from the shop,” Cook says. “The difference between being good and great is such a fine line.”

Before the 2017 NASCAR season, Busch switched manufacturers from Chevrolet to Ford, necessitating an overhaul of everything from the car body to the engine and suspension. The work paid off immediately, as Busch won February 2017’s Daytona 500, the most iconic race in the sport.

Cook says the key to that victory was having slightly better mileage and fuel capacity, so when the leading driver ran out of gas on the last lap, Busch was able to take the checkered flag.

“The only lap we led was the last lap,” Cook says. “That’s the one you want.”