|05/11/12 09:07AM||David Ragan, NASCAR, Regan Smith, Southern 500|
Unchanged Smith set to defend at Southern 500
Watershed moment hasn't altered Smith's circumstances, aside from recognition
By Viv Bernstein, Special to NASCAR.COM
May 10, 2012 11:27 AM, EDT
It isn't easy making a name for yourself in NASCAR, particularly when your name happens to be Regan Smith.
And that's why his victory a year ago in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, the first Sprint Cup win of Smith's career, has changed his life. At least in one regard.
I think the main thing is I don't get called David Ragan as much anymore.
-- REGAN SMITH
"I think the main thing is I don't get called David Ragan as much anymore,'' Smith said with a laugh. "That's good. If I had a buck for every time somebody shouted the name 'David,' I wouldn't have to drive race cars for a living."
If Regan is no longer Ragan, that's hardly the only difference in his life a year after earning that checkered flag. As Smith prepares to defend his title in Saturday's Southern 500, he also arrives as a newlywed and a first-year resident of Colorado, having moved there last June to join his Furniture Row Racing team based in Denver.
In truth, it has been a whirlwind year for a driver who remains remarkably unchanged by it all.
"I see him as the same old Regan," his father, Ron Smith, said before the Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday. "No, I don't really see a whole lot different, other than the confidence he has as a driver and I think probably he gained a lot of respect from the other drivers after that happened. They suddenly realized given the opportunity, he now is a threat and they have to race him like he's a top-10 driver if he is up front. And I think because of that, he races with a lot more confidence and has probably a lot more respect from all of the drivers than what he had before because he has that visibility."
Indeed, winning on a track like Darlington does make a difference. Whatever questions there were about his ability to win a race -- after having what he thought was a victory at Talladega in the fall of 2008 taken away by NASCAR when it was ruled he went below the yellow line to pass Tony Stewart -- were erased at a track that is as tough as any on the circuit. Regan Smith won when he stayed out during a late caution and inherited the lead when five drivers in front of him pitted. He held off Carl Edwards for the victory.
"He didn't just come out of nowhere and steal it because he didn't pit -- he was running in the top five or six all day that day,'' Denny Hamlin said. "We knew that he had a really good shot at winning once that last stop happened. I don't think I view him any differently now than I did before, but obviously having that win is something great for his resume. You look at the pictures and the names on the trophy that you get there -- you're in some seriously elite company that have won at Darlington."
Of course, it wasn't just a victory for Smith. It was an affirmation for Furniture Row Racing, a team in only its second full season of competition in Sprint Cup after years as a part-timer in the sport.
"It answered some questions,'' general manager Joe Garone said. "You spend your every weekend and every moment you're awake in this sport trying to win races and when it finally happens, it certainly maybe answers questions that you may have about yourself, about your team, about what you're doing and you just build on top of that. From that perspective, it was of course a big milestone that was met."
All of which has made this year that much more frustrating for the driver and team. Smith is 27th in the standings heading into Saturday night's race. After one victory, two top-fives and five top-10s last season -- including a third-place showing in the Brickyard 400 -- there have been no top-10s this season. Instead of building off of the victory, the team has taken a step back. It didn't help that Smith finished 40th at Talladega on Sunday, lasting only 15 laps before the engine died. More critically, the team has struggled at the mile-and-a-half tracks this season.
"I hope we're solving it,'' Smith said. "We haven't solved it to this point yet, though.
"It's going to take some time to get back and fix and correct."
The struggles have come with Smith, who finally found a home after losing rides with the demise of Ginn Racing, and then the merger of Dale Earnhardt Inc. into Earnhardt Ganassi, now in the final year of his contract with Furniture Row. Both Smith, who bought a home outside Denver as a show of commitment to the team, and Garone say they are working on that. But Garone acknowledged that the team has spoken with Kurt Busch about 2013. The plan would be to add a second race car, although Garone does not have sponsorship for that at this point. Garone didn't rule out the possibility that Busch could replace Smith, although that's not what Furniture Row plans to do.
Smith, 28, has been through too much to let that affect him now.
"I think there's a lot of stuff being talked about right now," Smith said. "If you get spun up or caught up in that stuff, it's gonna do nothing. It's gonna negatively affect you if you're not careful about it. All I'm gonna say, rumors get started this time of year. If all of it comes true or if none of it comes true, it wouldn't surprise me either way. That's just part of this sport."