After going through much of the offseason without a ride, Regan Smith started his season on a high note with an eighth place finish in the Daytona 500.
“It was a good day and there are lots of positive things that we can take from Daytona and continue to build on for the rest of the year,” he told POPULAR SPEED.
The day didn’t start off smoothly, though, as Smith spun early on trying to avoid Carl Edwards, who had gotten in the outside wall, at Lap 20.
“I was a little worried with the incident early on,” he said. “I don’t know exactly what happened, I hit the brakes and it came around pretty quick on me; was fortunate to keep it out of the wall and off of the grass.”
Smith wanted to stay off the grass, to avoid tearing up the nose.
“As you’re trying to save it and steer it and correct it, if you do go in the grass, you want to make sure that you’re sliding backward if you get in there,” he said. “I managed to keep it out of the grass. The challenge being when it tries to snap back out of its spin, you end up going head first into the outside wall as you’re trying to do that. I was steering it the whole time, and felt pretty good with where I was at position-wise on the race track.”
Combined with his steering skill were two bits of good luck: his competitors avoided hitting him and he got back to pit road without a flat tire coming apart and tearing up the fender. After restarting at the tail of the field, Smith made his way forward through the pack.
“The rest of the day, we just gradually chipped our way back to the front,” he said. “We had a good-handling racecar all day long and were able to make up the differences. Other people looked like they were struggling with their handling after 15, 20 laps, and that’s where our car would come to life.”
He credits his move into the top-10 to crew chief and team owner Tommy Baldwin’s pit road calls. While most teams chose to take four tires under the second-to-last pit stop under green, Baldwin put two tires on the No. 7 Golden Corral / Nikko RC Chevrolet to gain track position.
“We actually would’ve come out of that situation about fifth or sixth when it was all said and done, and in a really good spot, but with the way the draft caught us and I didn’t have a partner coming off pit road,” he said. “We lost a few spots getting back in line and tagging along with guys that we could draft with.”
Baldwin called for four tires on the final pit stop, which Smith said allowed him to be more aggressive than his competitors who took two tires, and were losing the handling.
“While the lines didn’t appear to be moving, if you made the right moves at the right times, you could still make the lines move and position yourself, and get yourself up there,” he said.
For Smith, it marks a remarkable story considering the events of the offseason. He ran last year’s full XFINITY Series schedule for JR Motorsports, but spent much of the offseason searching for a ride. The partnership with Baldwin only came together about four weeks ago.
“To be able to hop in something and go, and have a good day on Sunday on that short of notice, and start working with a team and building relationships is great,” he said. “The whole week is about building a bond and trust that you can carry through the year. While Daytona is different than anywhere else that you go, it helps you build confidence in each other and I think that’s the big takeaway for me, is I have a lot of confidence in the people around me, and that’s something that’ll pay off further down the season.”
It also marks a strong run for the single-car operation as it’s their first top-10 since 2013. Smith says it’s a big deal for the organization to have a solid start to the year.
“This is a team that has worked hard and made a lot of changes throughout the off-season,” he said. “Tommy has made a lot of moves and bringing people in, and I think it gives validation that the moves he’s making are the right ones, and the team continues to grow. That could give us momentum. When you’re a smaller team, you enjoy the successes together, and you get mad about the failures together so certainly we’ll be able to enjoy that and carry momentum as the season goes on in trying to get more top-10s.”
Smith now hopes to carry the momentum into Atlanta Motor Speedway. While it’s a whole different type of racing and track, he enters with confidence based on the Daytona car.
“It’s another handling race track, and I look at how good our car handled on Sunday, and if we can get it handling any near that good at Atlanta, then who knows what we’re capable of,” he said. “But, it presents its own challenges different than a speedway. I think we have every tool to go and make our car as good as we can make it, and if we go out there and work hard, I think we’ll have a good day.”
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