[media-credit name=”Credit: Chris Trotman/Getty Images for NASCAR” align=”alignright” width=”197″][/media-credit]Regan Smith had just won his first career Nationwide Series race Saturday night in Homestead. He did so after a five year hiatus in one those cars. And he won with the organization he’ll drive for full-time in 2013.
So, Smith’s first thoughts after he climbed out in Victory Lane were on the 2013 season and what they could have done differently during the 200 mile Ford EcoBoost 200. Gathering data, gaining information, becoming knowledgably for next season was the main goal. Leading 24 laps and finding their way to Victory Lane was proof they’d done all right.
“It feels great. You look at it outside of the champions, there’s only three other people that are going to leave here happy from Homestead this year, and fortunately we’re one of the teams that can,” said Smith after his victory. “First and foremost, I’ve got to thank all the guys at JR Motorsports. They’ve worked really hard all year, and I was just fortunate to get the opportunity to hop in it before the season was over this year.
“Dale Jr. [owner], Kelly [Earnhardt Miller, owner] and Mr. H [Rick Hendrick] for letting me drive these things. I’m pretty pumped up about next year and rightfully so, I think.”
Smith went from driving in relief of Earnhardt Jr. back in October in the Sprint Cup Series to driving for him. Earnhardt JR. sat for two weeks, Charlotte and Kansas, when he suffered his second concussion in six weeks following a wreck at Talladega. In profiling that duty, Smith lost his chance with James Finch in the No. 51, although he did run the final two NSCS races for them.
But Earnhardt Jr. and all those involved liked what they saw from Smith. He’ll race full-time in the NNS next season for the company, running for the championship.
“I’ve seen Regan do some pretty unique stuff and see some flashes that let me know that given the right opportunity this guy can run the laps one after the other, as long as you need him to run them,” said Earnhardt Jr. about his new driver.
“They put a really, really good car underneath him tonight, and he ran the laps, every lap. It was phenomenal the speed they had … So I wasn’t really surprised. I felt like, all right, this is what’s supposed to happen. I know that there’ll be good times; there’ll be bad times in this year. You’re a hero one weekend and a zero the next. But given the right opportunities and everything falling correctly we can compete, and we have the tools to compete, and this sort of legitimizes that.”
Earnhardt Jr. went on to call the win, the organizations 10th, a big lift. Over the last few months there have been many high profile changes of personnel, all with the intention to get to where they were on Saturday. With a driver that Earnhardt Jr. praised heavily – great head on his shoulders, a good job in the car, works tremendously hard – and so forth.
Yet, Smith went to Victory Lane not with his 2013 team, but the one he tried to help do the same on the Cup side. Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief, Steve Letarte, was atop the pit box calling the shots for the No.5. Spotter TJ Majors was on the roof and the No. 88 pit crew was standing at attention on pit road when Smith came in for service.
While that aspect will be different at Daytona next year, Saturday couldn’t hurt in confidence. One race and one win is a good start to a new chapter in his racing life. Especially with how much has changed since Smith had been in a NNS car – his last start being July of 2007 at Daytona.
He was a quick study though, during practice. Learning what the car could and couldn’t do. He’ll have to learn again next season. The next generation of cars will make their debut, many taking great pride in the NNS becoming the muscle car series. Smith will race his Chevrolet Camaro against the Dodge Challengers and Ford Mustangs.
Except, for all the change Smith has experience the last few months, there’s one constant he’ll carry through his offseason. The expectations and goals he’s already set for his 2013 NNS campaign.
“I don’t know that we set the expectations too high. I think that we expect this every week and we’re going to expect it every week next year,” noted Smith. “I think the main thing is going to be to go into the offseason and realize that we’ve got to continue to improve, we’ve to continue to build fast racecars, to find more speed because everybody else is going to do it all offseason.
“But no, I don’t think winning ever sets the standard too high. That’s what we do this for, and it’s what we’re going to do it all next year for, and if we’re sitting out on the frontstretch at the end of the year next year, that’s what the goal is and that’s what the goal needs to be.”