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Sometimes nice guys do finish first. Consider Regan Smith

  The thrill of victory: Regan Smith celebrating with crew chief Pete Rondeau (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   It couldn't happen to a nicer guy.
   Regan Smith, the season's second unexpected winner on the NASCAR stock tour, was on worn tires the final miles but still somehow managed to hold off charging Carl Edwards to take the Southern 500 Saturday night.

   Ironically it was Edwards -- currently the series' points leader and having a bang-up season -- was came in a close second to Daytona surprise Trevor Bayne at the start of the season.
   Smith has come into his own this season, his third on the tour, and just before the season began he pointed to crew chief Pete Rondeau, the one-time crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr. (back in 2005), as making a big difference in his approach to this game.
   And Smith's win, by two lengths, wasn't really an upset, because he's run well virtually everywhere this spring, only to be plagued by bad luck. Clearly Joe Garone, the general manager for the operation (which is improbably based in Denver, Colorado, home of the owner, furniture man Barney Visser) has now a well-oiled team.
   And Rondeau's no-stop call in the last minutes of the race was key. While Edwards and 14 of the 18 men still on the lead lap all pitted for fresh tires when Jeff Burton brought out a caution with less than 10 miles to go, Rondeau told Smith to stay out, keeping the lead for what proved to the final restart, a two-lap green-white-checkered sprint.

   Regan Smith (Furniture Row) gets a push from Brad Keselowski (blue car) on final restart to get a jump on Carl Edwarsd (Aflac) (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   At that green, however, Smith appeared to be a sitting duck...if not for Edwards, the strongest runner at the end, then for Tony Stewart, who likewise gave up the offer of fresh tires in order to get track position. (Ironically Smith's pit crew this season comes out of Stewart's own camp.)
   But Smith, powered it should be noted by a Richard Childress engine, part of the team's engineering deal with Childress' Chevy operation, was just too much....in part because of a very good push by Brad Keselowski at the green. Keselowski said he knew Smith would probably be spinning his tires on the restart, as worn as they were, so he tucked in tight and gave Smith a good shove, to get out in front of Edwards.
   "It was just enough of a boost to get me that next little step past Carl, to where I could run my line through one and two," Smith said. "If I couldn't have done that, I don't think we could have had the momentum to win. So Brad certainly helped me; he preoccupied Carl that corner, and it gave me those two car lengths to stretch it out."
   The win puts the 27-year-old racer (from Cato, N.Y., about an hour north of Watkins Glen) in some very rare company. Darlington Raceway is one of those tracks where only solid veterans usually win, so tough is this place.
    "We were looking at the names and faces on the trophy....My face is going to be right there next to these guys, and it's going to be there forever," Smith said.
   Dale Earnhardt, Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Tim Richmond, Harry Gant, Jeff Gordon, Darrell Waltrip...



And into the final lap, Regan Smith gets a bit loose trying to hold off charging Carl Edwards (Photo: Getty  Images for NASCAR)


   More immediately, the victory, Smith's first, puts him in next week's All-Star race at Charlotte.
    Smith certainly didn't back into this win. He's known as a hard racer, which has sometimes hurt him. "There was a couple points where I was winding pretty hardcore...That's typical for me anywhere," Smith said, with his big grin, almost a trademark.
   The crucial pit stop opportunity?
   "Pete and I were talking about it, and the decision is his 100 percent," Smith said. "The way our stuff works is whatever he tells me to do, I do. 
   "But I did mention 'Man, I think this thing would be good with clean air.'
   "That's all he needed to hear to make the call to stay out.  That won the race for us."
   At Darlington Raceway's new astounding speeds since the repave, clean air is very important, with drivers hitting 200 mph into the tight corners. Indeed watching these guys dive off into turn one and turn three was heart-stopping.

    "When we cleared Carl going into one, I thought 'That's good -- at least we'll finish second'" Smith said.
    "When he didn't catch me at the white flag, and I still had a car-length gap, I thought 'I'm going to run another qualifying lap here, and we might have a chance at this thing.'


     Great weather for the Southern 500: clear skies and 75 degrees....and no gnats or sand fleas (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    "I hit the fence at turn two (the always tricky old frontstretch). Never checked it up. 
    "Sailed off into three....I had been on the bottom all night, and my game plan was to stick with the bottom -- I figured if he passes me with his tires on the outside, that's all right. 
    "I drove it deeper than I wanted to. He drove off pretty deep, which I expected him to. I don't know if the air off my car got him or what, but he wasn't able to make the run.
   "And we won the Southern 500.  That's pretty awesome."

   Rondeau gave Smith credit for the winning call: "He's the one driving it, he wants some clean air, so we'll give him some clean air.  He willed it."
   For Garone the win was a milestone. "We've been six years building this team, literally from scratch. When Barney wanted it run out of Colorado, (we thought) that we might just be crazy.  It's been a long road.
    "After the second or third year, we started realizing we can compete in Cup. And this shows the racing community you can win races outside of the normal North Carolina area."
   The Mothers Day weekend win made it a bit more emotional for Smith, whose mother wasn't at the track. "She doesn't miss too many of them," he said. "But she's in Tuscaloosa, Alabama...to help out with the recovery efforts and save some animals down there."
   But Smith did get a brief phone call to his mom: "I didn't get too many words out of her: 'I love you...boohoo, lots of tears and crying.'
    "If I know her, she's going to enjoy a Bacardi and diet Coke...if it's in a tent, pickup-truck, hotel."



Kevin Harvick going into the NASCAR command center after his post-race run-in with Kyle Busch (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Some drivers fret about never winning another NASCAR race; Smith worried 'What if I don't get to race in another Cup race again?' 
   "As a driver, you never know when your last race is going to be.
  "Last year I was thinking 'Maybe they're going to fire me. I hope not.'  But who knows what is going to happen. 
   "Last year the lowest point was when I broke my wrist at Sonoma and raced at Loudon (the next weekend) with it broke completely.
   "It hurt really bad...it was a horrible day....probably one of the worst races I ever have driven.
   "But from that point on we started rebounding. 
    "Ever since the Chicago race (last July), even though some of the finishes don't show it, we've been running way more competitive."

   So Smith can finally wipe away that Talladega disappointment.  "Winning here to me means more to me than that win could have ever meant.  With this team -- with the hard work...racing out of Colorado...the things that have gone on...
    "Everybody said 'You can't race outside of Charlotte, the 20 mile radius where all the teams are. You can't do it.' 
   "We've been doing it every week. Now everybody is going to notice how good we're doing it."



Regan Smith's crew celebrating its first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory...six years in the making (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    Does Rondeau now perhaps feel a bit of vindication for that abortive Earnhardt experience? Nope, the low-keyed crew chief insists: "I guess a lot of things go around, and some come around.  This just came around.  I'm Regan Smith's crew chief now, so that part there has gone by."

   But this win is clearly vindication for Smith: "There have been some sleepless nights after a race: 'I did this wrong, I did that wrong.'
   "I'm my own worst critic.  I put everything on my shoulders. Times I'll beat myself down...
    "But we all do this because we believe in ourselves and believe we can win races. 
    "It's not just when you get to this level, it goes all the way back to when you're racing Saturday nights, trying to get an opportunity, to get your first Truck start or Nationwide start. 
    "...I remember sending out hundreds of proposals. I thought 'Man, these are cheesy-looking.  Why am I sending them out?  I'm going to send them out anyway.'
   "There are people in this garage area you can walk up to and say 'Remember when Regan used to call you, when he was 16 or 17 years old? And your secretary would say 'Regan Smith is on the phone again.' And they would say 'Tell him I'm not here.'
    "The more doors get slammed in your face, the thicker your skin is.
    "When I was running Pro Cup -- a family-owned team back in the day -- money was tight, and you fight and feud sometimes with your family because of it.
    "It's tough.  It's like that for so many people out there right now, racing Saturday night.  It's not just at this level.
     "You've just got to keep digging."


    Regan Smith over Carl Edwards in a squeeker at the finish line (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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