Whirlwind Week for Smith

Regan Smith

"It's the best car I've sat in, there's no denying that. I just want to go out and make the most of it - run all 500 miles and see where we are when it's all said and done." (Photo: Getty Images)


CONCORD, N.C. - Regan Smith's whirlwind week continues tonight when he starts his first race behind the wheel of the No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet in the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The start of the weekend on Thursday began as just an ordinary day for Smith. That morning, he woke up knowing he was going to make his debut driving the No. 51 Chevrolet for Phoenix Racing in practice and qualifying. But as he was making a cup of coffee and preparing to head to the gym, a text message changed everything.

It was from Hendrick Motorsports crew chief Steve Letarte to call him. Not knowing about the news that was to break later that morning, the eventual call was Letarte asking if Smith would be willing to be the substitute driver for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was about to announce that he will be sitting out the next two races due to a concussion.

"He (Letarte) basically said, ‘Why don’t you head over to the shop instead of heading to the gym,’ " Smith said. "So that's what I did and obviously found out the rest of the news as it went on.”

Days after finishing fifth in his final start in the No. 78 for Furniture Row Racing at Talladega Superspeedway, Smith was at the Phoenix Racing shop getting his seat fitted in the No. 51 car. Then, a day later, he found himself at Hendrick Motorsports getting a seat fitted in the ride belonging to NASCAR's most popular driver.

“It’s an exciting opportunity for me," Smith said. "I hate the circumstances surrounding it. Obviously, Dale’s safety and getting healthy are the most important two things right now. But with that said, it's a great opportunity for me to hop in a racecar. The past four weeks have been about as up-and-down as any four weeks of my life, between what was going on with the No. 78 car.

"When you figure in the organization, being Hendrick Motorsports, and the drivers that have driven there ... not only that, the car that you're getting into is the most recognizable car in this sport right now. So yeah, there's a "Wow" factor and you want to do those guys proud."

The choice for a replacement driver was an easy decision for team owner Rick Hendrick and Earnhardt.

"I think we've been talking about running him in the Nationwide car for a championship," said Hendrick, who called Phoenix Racing owner James Finch on Wednesdsy night to ask if Smith could race for him. "He's a good driver and Dale likes him, and we're familiar with him. So it just seemed to fit."

Regan SmithLater on Thursday afternoon, Smith got acclimated quickly behind the wheel of the No. 88 Chevrolet and posted the seventh-fastest lap in his first practice session. But during qualifying, Smith got loose in Turn 1 forcing him to settle for mid-pack on the starting grid.

"Starting 26th is going to be a big issue there, as we all know," Smith said. "We're going to have to work hard to get track position and then once we get it, keep it somehow."

When Smith reached the third and final practice Friday evening, he felt much more comfortable. In fact, during that session he was second-fastest on both the speed chart (188.009 mph) and best 10-consecutive lap averages (184.931 mph).

"The first run, the car was really glued to the racetrack and it felt solid," Smith said after climbing from the No. 88 for the last time prior to tonight's race. "I feel like we might have lost touch of the track a little bit as practice went on and got a little tight. We're going to work on that overnight and I think the important thing is that we've got good ideas. The way we've been sitting down and communicating has been smooth. Stevie (Letarte) does a real good job with that and the engineers. We'll come up with a good game plan."

The practice sessions helped Smith adjust to the characteristics of a new racecar after driving for Furniture Row for the past four seasons.

"I'm getting more and more comfortable in my surroundings inside the car," Smith said. "Everything from the dashboard, the seat to where you're positioned in the car. It's different for me this week then what I've been accustomed to for four years. It's getting better. I think every time I get on the racetrack, it's going to continue to get better."

When Smith takes the green flag in the 334-lap race, it will mark the fourth team he's competed for in his six-year Sprint Cup Series career.

"It's the best car I've sat in, there's no denying that," Smith said. "I just want to go out and make the most of it - run all 500 miles and see where we are when it's all said and done."

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