In no way is the situation ideal for Regan Smith—or NASCAR for that matter—but there’s no denying he’s getting the biggest break of his Sprint Cup Series career, and maybe entire career, over the next two weeks.
When NASCAR’ most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., opted not to race after being diagnosed with a concussion following last Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway where he was involved in the final-lap 25-car melee, Smith was on tap to take over the seat in the No.88.
Smith, who previously drove the No.78 Chevrolet for Furniture Row Racing, was replaced by Kurt Busch who will take over the driving duties of the No.78 in 2013.
For this weekend, Smith was going to drive the car Busch used to drive, the No.51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet. But as we know now, that all changed early Thursday morning.
Instead of filling in for a former champion that’s been the lighter fluid in a firestorm over the past two seasons, he’s forced to fill the shoes of the sport’s most recognizable figure.
“Certainly it is big shoes to fill in for. I think first and foremost, his health and his safety is the priority. Obviously it is not something you want to play with, so whatever it takes to get him back is everybody’s priority right now,” said Smith on Thursday.
“Looking toward this weekend, we want to do the same stuff this team does every weekend, and that is go out, and try to get the pole and try to win the race; and do him, and the Junior Nation proud. That is what the goal is.”
Before being known as the guy who will replace Earnhardt Jr., many fans knew him as the driver that saw victory snatched from his grasp at Talladega in 2008 when he passed the eventual race winner, Tony Stewart, below the NASCAR’s “out of bounds” line on the final lap.
He’s not a household name, but rather a respected figure in the NASCAR garage, including a level of respect from Earnhardt Jr.
“Regan doesn’t need any tutoring or anything like that. He’s ready to go. He’s going to do a great job,” said Earnhardt Jr. “I’m excited for his opportunity. He’s a really good guy, been a good friend of mine for a long time.
“Under the circumstances I think this is a really, really neat opportunity for him, and I think that Steve (Letarte, crew chief) and the guys will enjoy working with him.”
Smith knows the situation for this break isn’t ideal for him or for the sport in general, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have confidence going into this tough circumstance.
“It’s an exciting opportunity for me. I hate the circumstances surrounding it. Obviously Dale’s safety and getting healthy is the most important two things right now,” said Smith. ”But, with that said, it is a great opportunity for me to hop in a race car. 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.
“As of yesterday (Wednesday), I was in South Carolina getting fitted for the No. 51 car to hop into the Phoenix Racing Chevy this weekend. This morning (Thursday) at seven o’clock I was at Hendrick Motorsports getting ready to hop in the No. 88 this weekend. It’s been a lot going on, and just want to do these guys proud and run as good as we can this weekend with this car.
“The same goals that this team has every weekend. We want to go out there, and try to win the pole and try to win the race, and try to be the fastest car in every practice. That’s not going to change. What they do every weekend, and that’s not going to change this weekend.”
Smith is no Earnhardt Jr. He knows he’s not. But his skills as a driver have the respect of the garage, and more importantly right now, he has the full support of the No.88 team in his corner.