Monday, May 09, 2011

Cinderella Strikes Again At Darlington

Regan Smith struck another blow for NASCAR’s underdogs Saturday night, outrunning Carl Edwards on a green-white-checkered flag restart to claim an upset victory in the Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington. Just two years after losing his ride when Dale Earnhardt, Inc. merged with Chip Ganassi Racing, Smith claimed the first win of his Sprint Cup Series career, carrying the Colorado-based Furniture Row Racing team to Victory Lane in the race they call “The Granddaddy of Them All” at the track called “Too Tough To Tame.”

Just 24 months after running a part-time schedule – including a number of start-and-park efforts due to a lack of funding -- Smith admitted there were times he doubted whether he and his team would ever make the cut. The 2009 campaign was especially difficult, with FRR racing only sporadically after team owner Barney Visser –who has funded the team largely out of his own pocket since 2005 – elected to trim the schedule due to lack of sponsorship. “I hated racing part-time,” said Smith. “We all did. But we all agreed to just go to work and make the most of it together.”

In 2010, Smith felt the pressure as Furniture Row underperformed in its return to full-time competition. "There were times I was thinking, 'Heck, maybe they are going to fire me,'” he said. “There were some sleepless nights (when) I’ve laid there thinking, `I did this wrong, I did that wrong.’ I broke my wrist at Sonoma… didn’t have it fixed and raced at Loudon with it broke completely. I got out of the car that day, it hurt really bad, it was a horrible day. We were so far off the pace... probably one of the worst races I ever have driven. As a driver, you never know when your last race is going to be. But everybody stuck behind me and gave me the support I needed… to keep my head on straight.

Saturday night, the stars finally aligned for Smith, Visser and crewchief Pete Rondeau, a Maine native best known for sitting atop Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s pit box for a brief, three-month period in 2005. After starting 23rd and running in the Top-15 for most of the night, Rondeau gambled when Jeff Burton’s blown engine sent the leaders to pit road with 10 laps remaining. He left Smith on the race track, hoping to somehow outlast the pack on older rubber. After an aborted restart when Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer crashed, Smith did just that, fending off point leader Carl Edwards in a green-white-checkered finish, bouncing solidly off the SAFER barrier in Darlington’s treacherous second turn rather than crack the throttle and give Edwards an opportunity to pass.

"Oh, man, this is too cool," said a tearful Smith on his cool-down lap. "I can't believe it. This is too cool. This is the Southern 500!” Gazing at the Johnny Mantz Trophy in a champagne-soaked Victory Lane, Smith commented on the names and faces of former winners emblazoned there, saying, “I’m not sure I belong on this list. My face is going to be right there next to these guys and it’s going to be there forever. You can’t change that.”

Smith’s first victory in 104 career Sprint Cup starts – his first Top-5 finish, as well -- served to erase the bitter aftertaste left by his previous brush with NASCAR greatness; the 2005 race at Talladega that saw him stripped of an apparent win for straying below the yellow line on the final lap. "I didn't know if I was ever going to get that one back," said Smith Saturday. "When I walked to the car (tonight), I thought we could win the race. I think that every week when we walk to the car. The difference was this week, we did. To (win) at Darlington is absolute vindication. Tonight, I finally won’t fall asleep thinking about Talladega.

Just weeks after Trevor Bayne shocked the world by taking the legendary Wood Brothers to Victory Lane in the Daytona 500, Smith’s win Saturday proved once again that there is still a place in NASCAR for underdogs. Located far from the Charlotte, NC, hub of the sport, Furniture Row Racing uses just 64 employees to field its single Sprint Cup Series Chevrolet. That’s a small fraction of the number once employed by DEI, which cut Smith loose at the end of the 2008 season after he clinched Rookie of the Year honors with the team. It’s fewer than the number employed by ECR Engines to provide the team’s power plants, and fewer than the number employed by Stewart-Haas Racing, which furnishes Furniture Row’s leased over-the-wall pit crew each week.

“We obviously haven’t got as many people on our payroll as Hendrick, Roush or Gibbs,” said Rondeau recently. “But our people want to be here. There is some disadvantage to working out of Denver, Colorado. Lots of guys have built their lives and families in the Charlotte area, and they’re not interested in uprooting to come work for us. But once they’re here, once they see the passion Barney Visser and (General Manager) Joe Garone have for this sport and what they have built in a fairly short period of time, we don’t have any trouble keeping them.”

“The more doors get slammed in your face,” said Smith, “the thicker your skin is. Winning here means more to me (because we’re) racing out of Colorado. Everybody said, `You can’t race outside of Charlotte… where all the teams are. You can’t do it.’

“Well, we’ve been doing it every week.”

Saturday night’s victory puts Smith on an elite list of former Southern 500 champions that includes Herb Thomas, Fonty Flock, Curtis Turner, Fireball Roberts, plus Petty, Pearson, Yarborough and Gordon. Better still, it legitimizes him – at long last – as Sprint Cup Series survivor. “We’ve had some great qualifying runs this season,” said Smith as recently as last week. “But Barney doesn’t pay me to qualify, he pays me to race. We haven’t been able to get the kind of finishes we need on race day.”

All that changed Saturday night.

"I don't really know how to put it into words right now," said Smith. "It feels a lot different at the end of the day when you say, 'Hey, I won at Darlington.' "

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