Last year, Regan Smith was headed towards the checkered flag with a chance to get the win in the Nationwide Series race at Daytona International Speedway. However, contact happened between himself and Brad Keselowski – resulting Tony Stewart getting the win and a big huge wreck that included Kyle Larson’s car getting up into the catch fence.
“Last year was a tough pill to swallow,” Smith commented. “There were a lot of circumstances around it. You know, nobody felt worse than me on Sunday morning and Saturday night. We were fortunate that all turned out well with all the fans and everything.
Smith said that situation took a while to get over, though was glad that he had Dale Earnhardt Jr. as a boss and friend to lean on.
“We went to dinner. I forget where we were eating,” Smith started. “He basically said, You got to shake it off. It’s racing. No fault of anybody’s. Things happen. Circumstances sometimes happen. He offered up a lot of good advice through that situation.
“It did bother me. I mean, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t. I think some quotes after the race were taken out of context and some of the fans maybe didn’t understand that I was answering another question. Sometimes that’s tough to get your point across that, look, I was highly concerned about what had taken place there. I was just answering another question after that.
“ Being able to talk to him, lean on him for advice and situations he’s been in and involved with, he’s very calculated in all that stuff, understands a lot of things like that, a lot of situations. I was lucky to have him to be able to lean on in this situation. I’ve continued to do that throughout the years.”
Smith took the lessons that he learned from previous races to this year’s race – putting himself in position late in the race, starting on the front row in a late race restart.
“In the right place at the right time,” Smith continued. “The 6 car played a big part with us winning, with Trevor back there pushing, but he was basically bump-drafting. That’s all we can do now. He stuck with me. I don’t know how it would have worked out if he would have tried to pull out and go three-wide. Maybe we all would have gotten shuffled.
“I was able to get on Brad’s door at the right moment. Once we got even, I felt like we had an opportunity to get to the stripe at some point. I pinched him out through turns three and four as much as I possibly could. Once we came off the corner, I made one last dive to the wall, pulled out on him. At the same time I got a bump-draft from Trevor almost at the exact time that I started pulling off of the 22 car. It was just enough to surge us forward.”
Smith crossed the finish line a couple inches ahead of Keselowski and took home the victory for his fourth career Nationwide Series win. It also marked the 300th win for Hendrick Motorsports’ engine department, as well.
“I’m going to enjoy this win for what it is tonight. We’re going to go back and have a good time with our win, know that we won at Daytona,” Smith commented. “It’s a huge deal to win here no matter what the series is. I myself have been trying a lot of times, whether it’s Duel races, 500, different things. I’m going to enjoy that.”
Smith says that for him, this win is special for a multitude of reasons.
“This is Daytona. It’s (crew chief) Ryan (Pemberton)’s first win at Daytona. I know it’s my first win at Daytona. It’s pretty special,” Smith said. “We’ve had the opportunity to work together in the past. To get paired back up this year, to get to fight for a championship, to have the caliber of equipment and people we’ve got working with us, I’m pumped up about it.
“We went to dinner the other night with all the guys. We’ve got a good group together that’s gelled early. That’s important. Certainly to win helps to gel even quicker. There’s going to be ups and downs, but we’re not going to think about anything other than doing what we can do week in, week out from here on out.”
With the success that Smith has had – including a Southern 500 victory – a lot of people have wondered when Smith will be back in a full-time Sprint Cup ride. However, the driver of the No. 7 Ragu Chevrolet isn’t worried about that right now.
“This year there’s two goals, that’s to win Junior Motorsports their first championship and for me to prove to the right owner that I belong racing on Sundays. But that first goal is the primary goal,” Smith said. “I’ve got a great opportunity with a great crew chief, great team behind me. Dale, Kelley and Mr. H have given us every opportunity to go out there and reach that first goal. That’s what the primary focus is going to be. If we do that, the other stuff will fall into place.”
Moving beyond Daytona nad looking towards that goal, Smith feels that he has a good shot based on how the company continues to get strong each year.
“We got three teams that we truly believe week in and week out are going to go out there and challenge for wins. It might not be the 7 car one week, it might be the 9 car. It might be the 88 car. It will be the 5 occasionally,” Smith added. “But we know what we have for equipment going into this season and what’s been built and the foundation that’s been laid. That’s a testament to the hard work.
“Like I said, these guys’ vision throughout the course of last year, the year prior to that. We truly believe as a company this is a year we can step up and challenge the Penske and Gibbs cars week in, week out, stamp our name right beside them if not ahead of them.”