Daytona 500 Countdown: Rookie Of Year Smith Searching
In the second installment of my 10-part series counting down to this year’s Daytona 500, I take a look at 2008’s Rookie of The Year Regan Smith – who was left out in the cold by the collapse of DEI and the financial downturn.
Regan Smith couldn’t have asked for much more than a shot.
Dale Earnhardt, Inc. gave him the opportunity to show what he could do at NASCAR’s highest level. In his rookie campaign, Smith competed in 34 races, ending up 34th in points. The result would put him just ahead of rookie contender Sam Hornish, Jr. – earning Smith the 2008 Rookie of the Year title.
In return for this award, and thanks to both a downturn in sponsorship and falling of the once-heralded team, he was given walking papers.
So Regan had to sit and wait to see what 2009 would bring.
Fortunately for him, Colorado-based Furniture Row Racing, which had been utilizing the services of Joe Nemechek and Kenny Wallace part-time last year called.
As a customer team of Hendrick Motorsports, Furniture Row Racing has decent equipment for the investment that they make – qualifying for 32 of 36 races in 2008 and taking the pole at Talladega. The team, as could be expected with Hendrick cars, has a record of success at restrictor-plate tracks.
But as has been the case with other organizations, they are scaling back their involvement to part-time for 2009. However, they needed a driver, and after Nemechek’s contract was bought out, they’re putting their faith in sophomore Smith.
You may recall that finish-line pass of Tony Stewart at Talladega in the fall race almost led to Smith’s first career win, but it was determined that he drove below the yellow line, and the subsequent penalty put him back to 18th – last on the lead lap.
Smith’s numbers aren’t spectacular by any stretch of the imagination: He broke into the Nationwide Series in 2001, but 2006 would be his best overall year, running 34 races and ending 20th in points with one top-10 finish. In 2007 he would make only 17 starts, but had three top-fives, and five top-10s to wind up 31st at season’s end.
In seven Cup races during the 2007 season he had an average start position of 19.3, and finish of 30. In 2008 this would change little: Smith made the field in 34 of 36 races, starting 25.8 and finishing with a 28.2 average.
Beyond the win that wasn’t at ‘dega, Smith started fourth three times, and his best finish on the season was 14th – twice. So there is plenty of room for improvement for the youngster, but at age 25 he has to hope for some good runs in the part-time schedule this year, and an economic rebound that would provide more opportunities to open up.
Smith obviously has his work cut out for him. Two or three years ago and he would have a real chance to show what he can do. Unfortunately the times are what they are, and Smith will have to make do.
The one plus is FRR is an established organization, and thus has an advantage on some of the start-up teams that have cropped up. Smith will have to make races, and find a way to stay out of trouble. Running in the back of the pack is a recipe for disaster – not only for the team, but for Smith’s hopes at a future in Sprint Cup.
Oh, and don’t fret for Nemechek. He’s formed NEMCO Racing, and is planning to run a full season in both the Cup and Nationwide Series this season. Philippe Lopez will crew chief Joe’s second-hand Toyota Camrys, bought from Red Bull Racing, for the Cup campaign, though sponsorship has yet to be obtained.
Check back tomorrow when I talk with ESPN’s pit road reporter Jamie Little. Jamie shares what she’s been up to in the off season, and her perspective on 2009.
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