Sunday, May 8, 2011

LASTCAR EXTRA: Regan Smith and Furniture Row: Kindred Spirits Find Victory Lane

The date was Sunday, October 5, 2008.

With shade from the fast-approaching darkness covering much of Talladega Superspeedway, the white flag finally flew across the wreck-depleted field of the AMP Energy 500. After more than three-and-a-half hours and ten cautions, it was now every man for himself. Sitting second, shadowing leader Tony Stewart’s every move, 24-year-old Regan Smith sat anxiously in his virtually-unsponsored black #01, fingers welded to the steering wheel, trying to look for any opening he could find. Before the restart, Paul Menard and Aric Almirola, Smith’s two teammates from Dale Earnhardt, Incorporated, were locked onto his rear bumper, each determined to put one of their struggling team’s cars into victory lane for the first time in more than two years. Almirola was shaken out of the draft on the restart, but Smith could still see Menard’s bright yellow Chevrolet fill his rear view mirror, rekindling memories of that fabled “23 Car” Michael Waltrip and Dale, Jr. made famous years before.

Entering turn three, Smith chose to lay back, earning him a helpful shunt from Menard. Now, the two were gaining ground on the leader again, ready for a last-minute assault on Stewart. As the leaders stormed into the tri-oval, Smith took a look up high and Menard followed, but Stewart threw the block, leaving the bottom wide open. Smith quickly cut low, and as Menard tried to follow, Stewart cut across Smith’s nose. The two made contact and Smith turned left, steering his car onto the flat apron to avoid a certain wreck. The checkered flag in sight, Smith held his ground, blended back up the track to pick up Menard, and began to inch ahead. As Menard closed once more, the checkered flag dropped.

And Regan Smith had won.

Down on pit road, crewmen in the #01 pit, their blank uniforms bearing only the signature of their fallen team owner, leapt into each other’s arms and cheered wildly, running in circles in unrestricted joy. On the backstretch, Smith let down the window net to release his pumping fist as Menard pulled alongside to congratulate him. It was a tremendous moment, a return to glory for a team that just a short time earlier had dominated the restrictor-plate tracks, headed by the sport’s most popular driver under its most revered name.

And then it was all taken away.

Not just the victory was lost, but also the team. That fateful judgment call which left Smith 18th in the final running order spelled the final death knell for DEI. Just a few weeks later, what little sponsorship the team still had dried up and the they closed its doors, laying off dozens of employees in the process. As what little remained of The Intimidator’s program merged with Chip Ganassi Racing, Smith accepted his Rookie of the Year award as one of the unemployed. In a cruel twist, it was the “Yellow-Line Rule,” a measure enacted in the shadow of Dale Earnhardt, which had cut down a living reminder of his legacy.

It was wrong then, and it always will be. But if anything positive is to be derived from that dark October day, it is that Smith found a home at Furniture Row Racing, paving the way to what transpired at Darlington last Saturday.

In a sport where it’s practically expected that one’s Cup team headquarters will be based in the vicinity of Mooresville, North Carolina, Barney Visser and Joe Garone’s Denver, Colorado-based team, like Smith, has been an underdog in every sense of the word. Invariably bearing the sponsor that is the team’s namesake, their distinctive #78 Chevrolets first hit the track in the Nationwide Series at Nashville in 2005 with Jerry Robertson behind the wheel. After eight starts in the series, the team quickly moved to Cup that September with Kenny Wallace coming home 34th at Dover. The following year, Wallace barely missed racing into the field for the 2006 Daytona 500, but stayed with the program through 28 more starts, culminating with both he and one-time teammate Joe Nemechek putting two Furniture Row Chevrolets into the field for the fiftieth running of the Great American Race.

Following the collapse of Ginn Racing in 2007, Nemechek had joined Furniture Row late that year and was tabbed as driver for the #78's first full season in 2008. With multi-car programs holding the key to understanding the new “Car of Tomorrow,” Furniture Row struggled to make the adjustment to full-time competition, missing four races that year. Even so, Nemechek’s restrictor-plate prowess gave the team valuable exposure. Besides the speed he showed during time trials for the 500, the veteran scored them their first pole at Talladega in the spring of 2008, an 18th-place finish at Daytona that July, and what was then a team-best 11th the day Smith’s win was taken away. But, after a 37th-place showing in the 2008 points standings and five last-place finishes in their first four seasons, Visser and Garone were looking for a change. They found Regan Smith.

Aware of their 2008 struggles, Furniture Row scaled back to a part-time schedule in 2009 that would include just 20 of the season’s 36 races, even at the expense of skipping the qualifying event for the All-Star Race. The team would also debut a fresh new look to their Chevrolets, their garish brown-and-white machines replaced with flat black cars that resembled the ones Smith had driven at DEI. In their first outing together, Smith put the team into its second-consecutive Daytona 500 and finished a healthy 21st, followed by a 19th their next time out at Las Vegas. Despite damage sustained in an early crash, the pair came home 15th in their return to Talladega, then finished 12th in the summer Daytona event.

That fall, a cut tire led to a crash at Richmond, ending Smith’s unprecedented 53-race streak of finishing every Cup race he’d entered. Still, to this day, Smith is one of only a handful of Cup drivers - including Kasey Kahne and Kevin Harvick - without a single last-place finish in any Cup or Nationwide Series points races. In fact, Smith’s only last-place run in NASCAR came early in his Truck Series career, when a two-truck crash took his #47 Ginn Resorts Chevrolet out of the 2007 Kroger 250 at Martinsville. Though Smith failed to qualify for two races late in the 2009 season, Visser and Garone were satisfied with the team’s progress and re-signed Smith for a run at the full 2010 season. The objective: finish in the Top 35 in Owner Points.

After a rough start to the year, Smith and Furniture Row ultimately attained their goal last November, coming home 29th in Owner Points to lock themselves into the first five races of this season’s campaign. For the first time, both team and driver had successfully run an entire Cup schedule. A strong run in the Gatorade Duels put them 11th in the Daytona 500 field. At Talladega in the spring, they led for three laps and were still running with the leaders late in the event before an engine failure left them 39th. Through 36 races, Smith finished inside the Top 20 ten times. Half of these finishes came in the Chase, where the team became known for its daring efforts to stay out on late restarts with old tires in an effort to capture a solid finish. Even after most of the team’s equipment was destroyed in a frightening freeway pileup in Colorado just days before the season finale, the team showed tremendous heart, banding together with the aid of their fellow competitors. They qualified 10th that weekend and came home 17th.

No longer worried about the dreaded “go-or-go-home” qualifying sessions, Smith and Furniture Row turned their attention to SpeedWeeks 2011 with dramatic results. In the Gatorade Duels, Smith teamed up with Kurt Busch, one of the fastest cars of the week, and nearly outmaneuvered Busch for the win. The two paired-up again in the 500 and Smith again returned to the lead, pacing the field for six laps while dodging all the early wrecks. Even after Busch turned Smith during a late-race restart, Smith rebounded once more and finished 7th, scoring the first Top 10 both driver and team had ever scored in the Cup Series.

From there, Smith became the king of Fridays, never qualifying worse than 18th in the first nine races including an outside-pole at Richmond that was one of seven performances inside the Top 10. While those nine races gave Smith the best average start of the series, however, luck suddenly eluded him on race day: in the six races that followed the 500, he never cracked the Top 20 and suffered a pair of DNFs. It is indeed most curious that at Darlington - a track where Smith had never finished better than 17th and where he had on Friday qualified a season-worst 23rd - that he once again found himself in a green-white-checkered battle for the lead.

Only this time, it was different. There was no yellow line, no frustration, no heartbreak. In fact, the race’s most controversial moment didn't involve Smith at all. Instead, there was only the unparalleled thrill of victory. The thrill of winning at a track that rewards legends for their tenacity and bravery: veterans like the one Regan Smith has become during his brief journey in this sport and teams with the entrepreneurial spirit of Furniture Row.

Because today, Regan Smith is a champion of the Southern 500. And Furniture Row Racing has brought hope to the struggling start-up teams of today.

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