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Running a NASCAR team out of where? Denver Colorado? You gotta be kidding! But Regan Smith is making it work

  Underdog? Well, yes, but Regan Smith has some big guns on his side this season (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   You think your daily commute is rough and draining?
   Trying running a full-time NASCAR team out of Denver.
   No, not Denver, N.C., just around the corner here.
   Denver like the Mile-High-City.
   That's 1600 miles away.
   Twenty hours straight, on a good day.

   And these guys have been doing this since 2005?
   So, want a nice 'underdog' sports story?
   Consider Regan Smith and his guys.
   Smith, crew chief Pete Rondeau, competition boss Mark McArdle, team boss Joe Garone, and team owner Barney Visser, who made the call to base this Sprint Cup team so far from the sport's traditional home.
   All these guys have a little something to prove. Maybe more than a little something, considering the potholes in their careers.

   Smith of course first made headlines at Talladega in that last lap bid to pass Tony Stewart for the win two years ago, only to get blocked down below the yellow line. Smith played the nice guy in that situation, and moved down to avoid a certain crash. But NASCAR then made the call to deny Smith the win, giving it instead to Stewart, a very controversial call.
   That NASCAR decision created the situation that led to the horrifying crash the next time out when Brad Keselowski, when blocked by Carl Edwards in a duel for the win, didn't give.
   If NASCAR had given Smith the win he probably deserved, then not only would Smith's career have likely taken a different turn, but that Edwards' crash might not have occurred.

  That Talladega setup...Tony Stewart (20) pinching Regan Smith below the yellow line after Smith began to make the pass on the last lap in 2008. Should Smith have simply held his ground, as Brad Keselowski did in the same situation later, and triggered a big crash? In retrospect, the way NASCAR handled the call, that's apparently what Smith should have done. (Photos: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Rondeau too has had his bum moments, notably during a rough run as Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chief.
   McArdle likewise.
   "Yeah, we've got a little bit of 'underdog' here," Smith says. "No denying that.
   "We are seen as a little team, a one-car team. But we don't look at ourselves that way. And that's one thing we've been fighting – we started last year to turn it around: 'Yes, we're an underdog team...but we're not as much of an underdog team as you might think, and we deserve to be talked about in the same breath as the top-tier teams.'
   "When we can look in the rear view mirror and see the guys we're now beating on a weekly basis, that's a feather in our cap, and that's where we think we're at now."
   Two major pluses: Chevrolet is taking a heavier role in supporting this team, with engineering support, and top Chevy team owner Richard Childress is providing support too.
   That's ominous for Smith's rivals.

   Running the NASCAR tour from a base halfway across the country?
   "The guys in North Carolina have to go over the same mountains we do," Garone says. "And our four truck drivers are used to driving in this kind of weather. So the location is really not an issue.
   "Now if I'd known, when I was asked to take this job, that it would become a full-time Cup operation out of Denver, I probably wouldn't have taken it. In fact we had no idea we would be trying this; it was going to be a part-time Busch operation.
   "But Barney called after that first year and said let's do a full-time Cup team. Out of Denver.
   "And Sonoma and California are only 18 hours. Vegas is 13 hours. Phoenix is 17 hours.
   "Now it's the Miamis and Poconos and New Hampshire that are killing us....
   "So our transporters might leave the shop Monday nights rather a Tuesday or Wednesday morning, as for the North Carolina teams."

   The line on Regan Smith is straightforward: good guy, good driver, feisty, solid personality.
   Now starting his fourth season on the tour, Smith says he finally feels he's starting to understand things on the Cup level. "In my rookie year (2008) there were so many twists and turns, and you always felt you were under the needle, and that there was something else that was going to happen next.
   "Now I don't have that view of things. It's more 'Let's go out and perform and make the most of what we've got.'
   "And we feel we're going to make a lot out of that.
   "For me personally my confidence is as high as it's ever been."
   The line on the team is, well, changing. Last season the team was essentially rebuilt. "And we looked at it as a two-year plan, setting out where we wanted to be after one year, after two years, after three years," Smith says.
   "We're right on track now. At one point last year we might have been a little behind where we wanted to be....but then there were also points where we were ahead of where we'd expected to be."

   Of course the team itself may now be much stronger than it was just a year ago, but it's still just a one-car team in a multi-car team sport, which is a decided disadvantage....particularly at Daytona this time around, where the two-car draft has teammates pairing with teammates.
   Smith laughs, reflecting on last week's Daytona tests: "I was sitting there on pit road, waiting to go out....and I would see Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch teamed up in a draft, and Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski teamed up in a draft, and Jimmie Johnson and Dale Jr. teamed up in a draft.
    "I was thinking 'Hmmmmmm. I'm going to have to start doing some heavy-duty politicking here here, talking to people.'"
    Garone has plans to expand to a two-car operation for 2012, running both out of Denver, even if only one is full-time.   
    Smith, as the driver, seems finally to be hitting his stride, as driver and as cheerleader, which a driver naturally has to be in this grinding sport.
    Smith points to Rondeau as helping with the change: "Pete has an experience level as crew chief, where all eyes were on him, and he understands that.
   "Pete knows my personality. He understands I wear my emotions on my sleeve. So that's been a good change.
   "Yes, trying to do hard, that might be something I'm guilty of at times. One thing I learned last year was if you take what you've got and don't do something too stupid with it, you'll make out better at the end of the day.
   "Maybe overdriving is something I've been guilty of, trying to make up for more than I can.
   "And on the radio I had a tendency to get bent out of shape really quick, and that's something we worked on at the end of the day. I personally worked hard on learning how to chill out, on showing I can be in control.
   "It makes a difference when you've got that guy on the box that you trust when he says 'We'll fix it when you come in again, but for the next 20 laps give me all you've got.'"
   And down the stretch last season it showed. Smith and the team wound up with their best overall performance since setting up shop.

   It is an odd operation, to be sure.
   Getting a pit crew, for example.
   This season Smith's over-the-wall gang will be employed and trained by the Tony Stewart team. (How ironic, considering that Talladega finish between Stewart and Smith a few years back.)
   Plus, Smith gets a rare break by an unanticipated invite to Daytona's Bud Shootout – under new rules for the Feb. 12th race, putting him in the field for his being rookie of the year in 2008. "Not running the Shootout puts you behind the eight-ball, because you're not getting that 70 or 80 laps of racing those guys are," Smith said.
    So Smith will get an early idea of just how 'blocking' may go at Daytona on this new asphalt. Blocking at Talladega – as Smith himself well knows – is sometimes vicious. But because Daytona is narrower, a driver may only be able to get in one 'good' block on a rival to try to keep him from passing....and that block could well open the door to another rival making a move of his own.
   "The blocking thing, the line rule is cut-and-dried now....no more discrepancies," Smith says with a smile. "But blocking, it will be interesting to see how that's called.
   "It's going to happen, and you'll have to deal with it.
   "But I want to see what happens when we all get down to the end of the race and somebody throws a block on you and say 'The heck with them, they're going for a ride.' What's going to happen at that point – a big pile-up, a single-car wreck.....how much give and take will there be?
   "I already know in my head what's going to happen, but it will be fun to see how it plays out."
   Kevin Harvick at Homestead, finally spinning out Kyle Busch and losing patience with his driving, showed what could happen.
   And Smith concedes the open days of this season might be rough too: "There are definitely some tensions built up and carrying over from last year....
   "But there's nothing wrong with a little aggression and anger."
   And Smith smiled.
   Yep, sometimes it doesn't pay to be a nice guy in this sport. Have to show 'em a little edge.


 Regan Smith, pitting at Phoenix (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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