Sunday, November 18, 2018

CUP: Regan Smith misses the start and scores first last-place finish, securing LASTCAR Cup Series title for Corey LaJoie

Regan Smith picked up the 1st last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway when his #95 Dumont Jets Chevrolet finished under power with 240 of 267 laps complete.

The finish came in Smith’s 224th series start. In the Cup Series last-place rankings, it was the 16th for car #95, the 36th where the driver finished under power, and the 756th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 25th for the #95, the 46th time the car was still running, and the 1,640th for Chevrolet.

While this is Regan Smith’s first LASTCAR article, he is no stranger to longtime readers. “Sleek and Swift, it’s Regan Smith” was the nickname adopted in my old starting grid videos when the driver from Cato, New York went full-time Cup racing in 2008. It was the culmination of a career that saw him climb the ranks across NASCAR’s top three ranks since 2002, when he made his Truck Series debut for Mike Mittler at South Boston. A full-time ride for Ed Rensi’s XFINITY team followed in 2006, followed by another for Bobby Ginn, which opened the door for his Cup debut at Bristol, sharing Mark Martin and Aric Almirola’s ride in the #01 U.S. Army Chevrolet.

But there was no shortage of challenges. Bobby Ginn abruptly left the sport midway through the 2007 season, and it was only a merger with Dale Earnhardt, Inc. that allowed the #01 to run at all in 2008. But the team still struggled for sponsorship, acquiring limited backing from the Principal Financial Group. All that seemed like it was going away at Talladega in November, when he was flagged the winner following a last-lap pass in the Amp Energy 500. But a yellow-line rule infraction dropped him to 18th in the final running order. Shortly after, DEI, along with several full-time Cup teams, were swept away by the recession.

It’s perhaps poetic that the race which would mark Smith’s first Cup Series last-place finish would also be the final one for Furniture Row Racing. It was Barney Visser’s single-car team that hired Smith to drive in 2009. At the time, the young team had just struggled to run their first full season with Joe Nemechek driving, and a rash of crashes secured them the 2008 LASTCAR Cup Series title. With Smith behind the wheel, Furniture Row debuted a new flat black paint scheme and would run a limited season – just 18 of the 36 races. A 12th at Daytona was their best run of the year. The pair went full-time again in 2010, then in 2011 came a breakthrough – a thrilling first victory for both driver and team in the Southern 500 at Darlington.

Late in the 2012 season, Smith and Furniture Row Racing went their separate ways. First Kurt Busch, then Martin Truex, Jr. would take the controls of the #78, ultimately steering them to the 2017 Cup Series Championship. Smith ended up in the XFINITY Series, where he won the 2012 finale at Homestead for JR Motorsports. Over the next three seasons, he’d finish no worse than 4th in points, picking up another five wins. He’d also become a familiar face at FOX Sports, both as a broadcaster and a pit reporter.

Other than a part-time ride with Phoenix Racing and a single season with Tommy Baldwin Racing, however, Smith’s Cup exposure has been as a relief driver. Right after his release from Furniture Row in 2012, he relieved Dale Earnhardt, Jr. following his concussion in a testing crash at Kansas. Two years later, he stepped in for Tony Stewart following his terrible leg injuries in a sprint car accident prior to Watkins Glen. He relieved Kurt Busch during an alleged domestic violence investigation in 2015, then for Kyle Larson after he fainted at Martinsville, and for Aric Almirola following his back injury at Kansas just last year. This past September, he’d fill this role again, this time for Kasey Kahne.

Kahne started this year looking to make a fresh start with Leavine Family Racing. However, other than a near-win in the crash-marred July race at Daytona, the veteran from Washington struggled to regain his competitiveness. He then announced on August 16 that he’d retire from full-time competition at the end of the year. Just a few weeks later in the Southern 500, Kahne was reportedly suffering from such extreme heat exhaustion that he couldn’t slow his heart rate enough to drink water. As Kahne recovered, at one point visiting his friend Ed Carpenter at Sonoma, he planned to return to the driver’s seat at Dover. Smith took over at Indianapolis, where he finished 20th. Dover came and went, and on October 9, following a test at Charlotte, Kahne announced the Darlington race had been his last. Smith would close out the year, a “Thanks Kasey” message on the TV panel.

Following Kahne’s announcement, Smith finished 10th at Talladega, his first top-ten finish since a 3rd in the fog-shortened Pocono race in 2016. In the four races leading into Homestead, he’d run no better than a 22nd, just last week at the ISM Raceway.

Smith’s sponsor for Homestead was Dumont Jets, which had unknowingly backed some well-timed throwback schemes celebrating Kahne’s career at both his final All-Star Race and his final start in Darlington. This particular paint scheme wasn’t one such throwback, but a standalone scheme the team had run at Kahne’s planned return race in Dover. Smith ran 28th in the opening practice and qualified 30th with a speed of 169.715mph (31.818 seconds). He then jumped to 21st in the second practice session and was 28th once more in Happy Hour. Smith would also have someone riding with him on Sunday. Bill Mares tweeted that his daughter Allison thought Smith could use a good-luck charm, so she gave the driver a Winnie the Pooh doll. The doll was strapped to the roll cage near the rear of the car.

Starting 40th and last on Sunday was Ross Chastain. The day before, Chastain made his final XFINITY Series start for Johnny Davis’ JD Motorsports team, one week after announcing his full-time effort with Chip Ganassi Racing for 2019. Chastain finished 16th in Davis’ #4 Florida Watermelon Association Chevrolet. Due to a lack of pre-race penalties, no drivers would join him at the back of the field prior to the start. As it turned out, neither would Smith.

During the pace laps, Smith was black-flagged for leaking oil around the track. Smith pulled down pit road as the start was delayed to spread a layer of stay-dri around the track. Unhappy with the situation, NASCAR officials called crew chief Jon Leonard to the hauler after the race. The Leavine Family crew looked under the right side of the car, then put the #95 on jackstands. Ultimately, they pushed the Chevrolet behind the wall, meaning they would have to miss the start. Much like Jimmie Johnson at Dover earlier this fall, a strange mechanical issue would cause Smith to miss the start. And, like Johnson, he would eventually rejoin the race. Smith was rolling again on Lap 25, and by the time he was up to speed, was 26 laps back.

Smith’s setback proved critical in the 2018 LASTCAR Cup Series Championship. Following Timmy Hill’s last-place run last Sunday at the ISM Raceway, Hill was in position to beat Corey LaJoie for the title, but only if his #66 Toyota finished last. Hill was shaken out of line early in the event, passed by Chastain through Turns 3 and 4 to drop him to 38th. The Motorsports Business Management team was also employing their in-house engine problem which gave the team so many problems in the first race they ran it, their last-place showing in Kansas. Hill had been warned to maintain minimum speed as he fell laps down to the leaders, but was still well ahead of Smith in that regard. LaJoie, running around the 33rd spot at the time, was still set to claim the title.

In the end, very little changed at the back of the pack as only debris cautions slowed the night’s action. Smith took the wave-around at each yellow, forcing him to make green-flag stops when the next caution didn’t come out. Though he would lose just one more lap and closed within 14 laps of both Hill and Tanner Berryhill, once again driving Victor Obaika’s #97 Brand South Africa Toyota, Smith would advance no further. On the final restart with 15 laps to go, Smith secured the last-place finish, handing the 2018 LASTCAR Cup Series Championship to LaJoie, who finished 34th. Berryhill and Hill finished 38th and 37th respectively, followed by another pair two laps ahead of them. In 36th was Kyle Weatherman in the neon-hued #99 International Marine / Native Boatworks Chevorlet. The 35th spot fell to B.J. McLeod in Rick Ware Racing’s #51 Jacob Companies Ford.

The NASCAR Cup Series Championship fell to Joey Logano, the first of his career. The 2018 season also marked a last-place finish at Watkins Glen, his first in a Cup points race since the 2009 Daytona 500. Logano’s run that day – and his crash in the Budweiser Shootout the previous week – were the first LASTCAR articles posted on this site.

*While Smith never finished last in Cup prior to Sunday, he did have one last-place finish in NASCAR’s top three series – October 20, 2007, when he was involved in a crash driving Bobby Ginn’s #47 Ginn Resorts Chevrolet in the Kroger 200 at Martinsville.
*This marked the first Cup Series last-place finish for car #95 since March 9, 2014, when Michael McDowell’s turn in Leavine Family Racing’s #95 WRL General Contractors Ford completed 141 laps before engine trouble in the Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas. The number had never before trailed a Cup race at Homestead.
*Smith joins Aric Almirola (2016) as the only two Cup Series last-place finishers to finish a race at Homestead while still under power.
*Smith is the sixth first-time Cup Series last-placer in 2018, but the first since July 29, 2018, when B.J. McLeod trailed at Pocono, 15 races ago.

39) #95-Regan Smith / 240 laps / running
38) #97-Tanner Berryhill / 254 laps / running
37) #66-Timmy Hill / 254 laps / running
36) #99-Kyle Weatherman / 256 laps / running
35) #51-B.J. McLeod / 256 laps / running

1st) TriStar Motorsports (5)
2nd) Motorsports Business Management, StarCom Racing (4)
3rd) Premium Motorsports, Rick Ware Racing (3)
4th) BK Racing, Front Row Motorsports, Furniture Row Racing, Penske Racing (2)
5th) Chip Ganassi Racing, Germain Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, JTG-Daugherty Racing, Leavine Family Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports, Roush-Fenway Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (19)
2nd) Toyota (9)
3rd) Ford (8)


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