Smith Fills In For Stewart

Regan Smith

Regan Smith climbs into Tony Stewart's car before the start of Sunday's race at Watkins Glen International. (Photo: Getty Images)

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. - The phone call came less than five hours before the start of Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen International.

Regan Smith was at home in North Carolina.

His crew chief, Ryan Pemberton, called with one directive. Get to the race shop as soon as possible. Smith was needed to fill in for Tony Stewart, who decided not to compete a day after he was involved in a fatal sprint car accident at Canandaigua Motorsports Park.

Kevin Ward Jr., 20, died after he was struck by Stewart’s car during the feature race. Ward crashed while racing Stewart. Ward exited his car as the race was under caution and walked down the track, gesturing toward Stewart before he was hit and killed.

Stewart issued a statement after Sunday’s race began.

“There aren’t words to describe the sadness I feel about the accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr. It’s a very emotional time for all involved, and it is the reason I’ve decided not to participate in today’s race at Watkins Glen. My thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends and everyone affected by this tragedy.”

Ward’s family issued a statement Sunday, saying: "We appreciate the prayers and support we are receiving from the community, but we need time to grieve and wrap our heads around all of this."

Later in the day, Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero said the investigation was continuing but that there was no evidence of any criminal intent.

With Stewart out, the team selected Smith, who drives for JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series.

Greg Zipadelli, vice president of competition at Stewart-Haas Racing, announced that Stewart would not race at 10:15 a.m. (ET) while Smith was en route. After landing nearby, Smith and car owner Rick Hendrick took a helicopter to the track, landing at 11:55 a.m. Smith, carrying his uniform in a bag, arrived in the garage about 10 minutes later with Hendrick, who was carrying inserts to help Smith fit in Stewart’s seat better.

Smith sat in Stewart’s car for 10 minutes as the team made adjustments to make him more comfortable. He then headed to the team’s hauler and spent 25 minutes there, emerging at 12:45 - less than 25 minute before the command to start engines.

Smith started at the back because of the driver change and slowly worked his way through the field.

“It took me a little longer to get acclimated than I would have hoped it would and felt like at the end there I was finally starting to make some progress,’’ Smith said. “I was able to get consistent with the car and understood the car a little better and what it was doing. These guys build fast race cars at Stewart-Haas, and I was thankful to get to get in one.  Definitely not under the circumstances.”

Smith’s race, though, ended early, when he couldn’t avoid Jimmie Johnson’s spinning car and hit it, damaging the left front of the car. The incident started when Kyle Larson got into Matt Kenseth’s car, who clipped Johnson’s car. Smith finished 37th.

“My day really doesn’t matter right now,’’ Smith said.”There are a lot of people more important than me at the moment; so we’re thinking about all those people and our prayers are with them.” 

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