Lesson Resonates With Smith
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on January 21, 2014 | 3:31 P.M. EST
As the top returning driver running the full Nationwide schedule this season, Regan Smith is an early favorite to win the title. (Photo: Getty Images)
Regan Smith thought he knew what to expect racing for a championship. He was wrong.
Smith carries that lesson after his 58-point lead evaporated and his Nationwide title hopes faded last season. Instead of heading toward a series title, he finished third in the points.
"We got caught up in the moment and ... it kind of spiraled quicker than we thought it would," said Smith, who had never contended for a NASCAR championship before.
The JR Motorsports pilot heads into this Nationwide season as an early favorite to win this year’s title. He's the top returning driver running the full schedule. Champion Austin Dillon moves to Cup at Richard Childress Racing and runner-up Sam Hornish Jr. has only a seven-race Nationwide deal with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Smith is one of four drivers who finished in the top 11 in the Nationwide points last year back to run the full campaign again. The others are Elliott Sadler (finished fourth), Trevor Bayne (sixth) and Brian Scott (seventh).
Smith’s run seemed unstoppable after his win at Michigan International Speedway in mid-June. His second victory of the season gave him a 58-point lead shortly before the schedule’s mid-point. That lead vanished five races later. Smith never reclaimed the top spot.
His problems started at Road America. A potential top-five finish turned into a 32nd-place result after he was involved in a chain-reaction accident. Mechanical issues the following race at Kentucky left Smith with a 30th-place finish. That began a season-ending streak where Smith never finished in the top 10 more than two consecutive races.
"We went from one week of thinking, 'OK, we've just got to go out and be smooth,' to two weeks later thinking, 'Oh, man, they're back on top of us and now what do we do?' "
"The reality was that they weren't really on top of us. We were all right there together and in it, and quite honestly up until - for us, I would say Dover. That was the race I look at and say that was the straw that ... took us out of the hunt, and we ran out of gas. We were running (fourth)."
Instead, he finished 15th. With Dillon and Hornish making few mistakes, Smith had little chance to make it a three-man race for the title.
Although Smith goes into this season as a favorite, he’ll do so with a different crew chief. Greg Ives moved over to become teammate Chase Elliiott’s crew chief. Ryan Pemberton will be Smith’s crew chief. Smith and Pemberton have worked together in the Cup series.
While that pairing will be key to what Smith does, what he learned from last year will be as valuable.
"The experience from last year is going to play a big part this year in understanding that until we really get down to a certain part of the season, you don't have to panic," he said. "You don't have to get desperate. You have to be smart and do the things that you know how to do."