Southern 500 Victory Gives Smith New Label Entering Darlington Weekend
May 10, 2012
For the first time in his NASCAR career Regan Smith enters a Sprint Cup race with the status of being the defending champion.
The 28-year-old driver for the Denver-based Furniture Row Racing became a first-time winner one year ago on Mother's Day weekend, scoring a hard-fought victory in one of NASCAR's crown jewels -- the Southern 500 at the historic Darlington (S.C.) Raceway.
"Defending champion -- I like the sound of it," said Smith about his moniker heading into Saturday night's Bojangles Southern 500.
Last year's victory at the daunting 1.366-egg-shaped oval that carries the ominous nicknames -- Too Tough To Tame and the Lady in Black -- not only elevated Smith's stature in NASCAR's premier series, but did the same for the single-car Furniture Row Racing, the only Sprint Cup team based west of the Carolinas.
"I felt at this time last year that we were getting closer to that elusive victory and then it came at Darlington -- and what a place to win your first race," recalled Smith. "The history, the prestige, the difficulty - Darlington has it all and to say you won is truly special."
Smith doesn't have to pinch himself as a reminder of being a Darlington winner. He just has to look at one of the most unique trophies in motorsports. His engraved photo, along with all the other Southern 500 champions, is on the 3-foot, 40-pound Johnny Mantz trophy.
"When your photo is on the same winning trophy with the faces of Petty, Earnhardt, Pearson, Yarborough, Gordon, Allison, Elliott, Waltrip, Johnson and many more legends, you know you accomplished something special," noted Smith. "I would rather win the Southern 500 than the lottery."
So, how did the underdog Smith tame the toughest track to score his maiden victory while running on older tires in the final 11 laps?
"He simply refused to get passed," said Furniture Row crew chief Pete Rondeau, who made a calculated call not to pit for fresh tires late in the race.
Rondeau's gutsy decision to forego the pit stop resulted in Smith’s No. 78 Chevrolet moving from sixth to first in track position.
With the lead and clean air in front of him Smith never looked back. He held off his challengers in both of the final two restarts and crossed the finish line 0.196 of second ahead of Carl Edwards.
The last lap did present a nail-biting moment for the Furniture Row team when Smith scraped the infamous Darlington wall.
"I hit the wall in turn two on the white-flag lap but the chances of me checking up there were about zero," Smith said in post-race interviews.
While the euphoric memories are still vivid, Smith enters the venue of his greatest achievement with a goal of snapping out of a four-race slump.
"We need to have a positive weekend in our Furniture Row/CSX Play it Safe Chevrolet," said Smith. "As I said after Talladega, we're in a partial slump and in a partial bad-luck streak."
Smith's season took another wrong turn in Sunday's race at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. On Lap 15 of the scheduled 188-lap race, he was forced to park his car due to an engine failure. He finished 40th, his worst result of the season.
"Nothing has seemed to click lately," said Smith, who has dropped from 18th to 27th in driver points in the last four races. "We need to forget about the past, look forward and start to turn things around. We're a team that came into the season with high expectations and right now we're not delivering."
For the fourth time this season, Smith's Chevrolet will carry the I Brake for Trains bumper sticker, which is part of CSX Transportation Play it Safe campaign to urge pedestrians and motorists to exercise caution around railroad tracks.