Two years ago, as Regan Smith basked in the celebratory confetti after his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory, he must have thought he was seeing a glimpse of his future. He was 27 years old at the time and competing in only his third full season on the circuit. He had just taken the under-funded Furniture Row Racing team to its first victory, and he'd done so at Darlington Raceway, long considered to be one of the most difficult Sprint Cup tracks (a place where three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart has never won). This had all of the appearances of a true breakthrough victory. Surely more wins would follow, and before long Smith would be competing for the championship.
Two years later, Smith is indeed in contention for a title, and he has rolled into victory lane twice so far this season. The only problem is that he is doing it in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, not Sprint Cup. Last October, just 17 months after his Darlington triumph, Smith was booted from the No. 78 Furniture Row car in favor of Kurt Busch, and that forced him to take a step back this year.
Based strictly on bottom-line results, swapping Smith for 2004 Sprint Cup champion Busch made perfect sense. The Darlington victory turned out to be one of only eight top-10 finishes for Smith in his 120 starts with Furniture Row. He poked his head above 19th in the point standings on just two brief occasions during that span. He also followed up his win at Darlington by finishing 34th the next week at Dover, and he managed only three more top-10s during the final 26 races of that season.
But many observers placed the blame for Smith's struggles more on the team than on the driver. By winning at a track as difficult as Darlington, Smith had shown that he has the talent to be successful at the Sprint Cup level. He was being held back by driving for a single-car operation that simply did not have the funds to compete consistently with the big boys of the sport.
At least, that was the theory. Then Busch took over and promptly piloted the No. 78 car to three consecutive top-10 finishes to close out the 2012 season. He has followed that up with eight top-10s in 19 races this season (as many as Smith had during his entire stint with Furniture Row), and he has the team in legitimate contention to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Still, Smith has his supporters, most notably Dale Earnhardt Jr., who placed him in his No. 7 JR Motorsports Nationwide car for this season. Earnhardt and Smith have developed a close friendship over the years, which was evident when Smith was tabbed by Hendrick Motorsports to be the replacement driver for Earnhardt when he missed two Cup races late last season with a concussion. As soon as it became evident that Smith would be unable to secure a Cup ride for this season, Earnhardt quickly scooped him up with hopes of revitalizing his Nationwide team, which had gone winless in 2011 and during most of 2012.
"Regan brings a better presence. He understands what the job is, what he needs to do," Earnhardt said. "He's really confident, and I think that's good for the team to see. It gets the team excited. I've seen Regan do some pretty unique stuff and seen some flashes that let me know that, given the right opportunity, this guy can run the laps one after the other, as long as you need him to run them. He's an awesome driver, a really good guy with a great head on his shoulders. He does a good job in the car and works tremendously hard. I know what kind of speed he has as a driver, and I know the kind of potential our cars have."
ESTES: Earnhardt becoming predictably mediocre
Smith immediately rewarded Earnhardt's faith in him by winning the first time he hit the track for JR Motorsports, in last year's Nationwide season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It marked the first victory for JR Motorsports since Jamie McMurray won in 2010. Smith has been to Victory Lane twice more this season, and currently is only seven points behind Sam Hornish Jr. for the lead in the Nationwide standings.
Smith said earlier this year that his goal for this season is nothing less than winning the championship. That's because, not so deep down, Smith is convinced that he should still be driving in the Sprint Cup Series.
"I've never lost faith in my ability. I've never once wavered on that, never once thought that I didn't belong at the Cup level," Smith said. "I always felt good about what my prospects were. Certainly my first option was to stay in Cup. But when that didn't happen, I was hoping it would play out this way. JR Motorsports was where I wanted to be. This is a winning organization. It's not a case of where we're expecting to go out and finish 10th and smile about it. We're expecting to go out and win, and smile about that."
Smith definitely is doing more smiling these days than he has in quite awhile, probably since that glorious evening at Darlington. He might not be where he thought he'd be two years ago, but he is doing exactly what he anticipated. Namely, battling for victories and a championship.
"You want to be in Sprint Cup, but you also want to be competitive," Smith said. "Right now, I can go out with these guys and know I can win races week in and week out and contend for a championship if we do the right things and we're smart. I have a Cup-caliber crew chief in Greg Ives. I'm working for a good company with good people around me. And I have a good boss. There are a lot of things that lined up to get me here. I'm just excited to be a part of it and excited to move forward with my career here."