Furniture Row Racing driver Regan Smith has driven for one of few NASCAR's single-car teams since 2009.
It's been a work in progress for the past three years, but Smith has taken significant strides since his rookie season in 2008.
Smith crossed the finish line first at Talladega in fall 2008 while driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc., but was infamously denied the win for passing Tony Stewart below the yellow line.
That disqualification ruined what would have been the first top-10 of his career. In fact, Smith didn't score his first Sprint Cup top-10 until the Daytona 500 this year. He's gone on to earn four more top-10s this season, including a pair of top-fives.
Most significantly, he drove to his first career victory in the Southern 500 at Darlington in April, beating Carl Edwards in a green-white-checkered finish despite running on older tires.
In an interview with the friendly and likable Smith during the Martinsville race weekend, I asked whether he looked at his Darlington victory as redemption after the near-miss at Talladega three years earlier.
The driver didn't feel that way, however.
"I wouldn’t say it was redemption, you know," Smith said. "It was two totally different situations. Talladega obviously was a bad deal. At the time, I didn’t have a ride the next year. It would have been a cool deal to end it up with and good for the rookie season, but I don’t think (Darlington) was necessarily redemption. The Darlington win was even better because it was such a tough race to win. You look at the guys that have won it—they’re all legends, they’re all very big names in the sport."
Perhaps the most striking aspect about Smith's 2011 season is that he has finished in the top eight in four of the year's biggest races: the Daytona 500 (seventh), Coke 600 (eighth), Brickyard 400 (third), and of course his win at Darlington in the Southern 500.
Smith doesn't have an explanation for the big-race success of the No. 78 team.
"I just wish we'd do it at every race," Smith said. "The rest of them pay the same amount of points as those one do, but for whatever reason, we’ve just had good luck at those races. Some have been good luck, some we’ve been just really fast at some of them. The combination of all things have played out really good for us at those particular ones, and we’ve got to figure out how to make that happen every week."
Smith acknowledged that greater consistency is what it'll take to bring the No. 78 team to the next level and contend for a Chase spot.
"I think we’ve been getting better on consistency; but the last couple weeks it’s been a little off, we’ve struggled a little bit," Smith said. "These last four races, we need to get back on track, get some momentum and look at these four races as if they’re the big four races and get momentum going into next year."
Indeed, making the Chase is Smith's biggest goal for 2012.
"That's the goal for next year anyway," said the 28-year-old. "Surely this year we had opportunities that we didn’t capitalize on with the win. We just had too many mistakes, too many stupid things happen, so we need to rein all that in and make sure that we get optimum points every week. I think that if we do that, we’re going to be capable of being right there on the cusp of making it."
At the end of the interview, I asked Smith what was one of the coolest things about being in the Sprint Cup Series.
"To race against some of the guys that we race against is one of the coolest things," said Smith. "I grew up watching a lot of these guys, Gordon, Mark Martin, Jeff Burton. When I was a teenager, it was these guys that were really coming up through big things. To know you’re out there on the same track with them is pretty amazing."
Smith added one more thing, something a lot of fans might think about having the chance to make a career in NASCAR. "The simple fact that you get to drive a car and make a living is pretty cool and I don’t know that too many people get to go to their daily jobs and say, 'Hey, I do what I love every day,' and we get to do that."