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Regan Smith will drive No. 43 in Coke 600 for injured Aric Almirola

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Regan Smith will once again drive the No. 43 Ford in place of the injured Aric Almirola this weekend in the Coca-Cola 600.

Smith’s role as a substitute driver for Richard Petty Motorsports continues after he stepped in for Almirola last weekend in the Monster Energy Open. Smith finished fourth in the final stage of the race.

Almirola is expected to miss eight to 12 weeks as he recovers from a T5 compression fracture in his back. Almirola suffered the injury at Kansas Speedway in a major three-car crash.

MORE: Aric Almirola recounts Kansas crash.

Smith will be making his first start in a Cup points race this year. He currently drives for Ricky Benton Racing in the Camping World Truck Series.

Smith has 11 Cup starts at Charlotte Motor Speedway with a best finish of eighth in the 2011 Coke 600.

“To me, there are a lot of cool things about helping out again this weekend,” Smith said in a press release. “Being able to represent the Air Force on Memorial Day weekend and show appreciation to those who make the ultimate sacrifice is very special to me. I’m honored to race with Senior Airmen Mark Forester on the car and pay tribute to his sacrifice. As I said many times last weekend, to get to drive ‘The King’s’ 43 car means so much to me. The Coca-Cola 600 is one of my favorite races of the year, and Sunday is the coolest motorsports day. It will be a lot more fun being a part of such an iconic day than just being a spectator for all of the races.”

 

NASCAR America: Aric Almirola recounts Kansas crash that caused back injury

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Last Saturday, Aric Almirola and Richard Petty Motorsports announced Almirola would miss at least eight to 12 weeks with a T5 compression fracture in his back. The injury is a result of a violent three-car accident the previous weekend at Kansas Speedway.

Following the announcement, Almirola sat down with NASCAR America to gives his account of the accident. The interview can be watched in the above video.

MORE: Almirola’s greatest pain is not being able to fulfill children’s wishes

Following Almirola’s account, NASCAR America analysts Parker Kligerman and Kyle Petty discussed the accident and the state of safety in the sport today.

With the many years his family has been in the sport and the tragedies it has experienced seen, including the death of his son Adam Petty in a 2000 Busch Series practice session at New Hampshire Motor speedway, Kyle Petty said Almirola’s accident hits “close to home.”

“When you’ve been in the seat and another family trusts you to take care of their son or their husband or their father, whatever it may be, and it’s our responsibility to look after Aric,” Petty said. “We talk about frontal impacts, we talk about rear impacts, we talk about side impacts. There’s been so much written and spoken about concussion. … But how many times do you see a car fall out of the air? You can’t cover everything. That’s what NASCAR continues to look at, that’s what we all continue to look at. But this sport is never, ever, ever, ever going to be completely safe.”

Watch the rest of the video below for all of Petty and Kligerman’s thoughts on the Almirola and safety in NASCAR.

Long: Aric Almirola’s greatest pain is not fulfilling his children’s wishes

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CONCORD, N.C. — The pain in Aric Almirola’s back is nothing like the pain in his heart.

When he gingerly exited an airplane Sunday, a day after fracturing his T5 vertebrae at Kansas Speedway, he was greeted by his children. Four-year-old son Alex and 3-year-old daughter Abby wanted to hug their father.

“I couldn’t,’’ Almirola said in a soft voice.

They wanted him to pick them up.

“I couldn’t.’’

Hugs and lifts will be limited for while. Almirola is expected to need eight to 12 weeks to recover from the back injury he suffered last weekend. His car pounded Joey Logano’s Ford, sending the rear of Almirola’s Ford up about 6 feet before crashing back to the track.

Almirola moved haltingly Friday, sitting still as he talked because of the “excruicatingly painful’’ injury.

“There’s no way to relieve it,’’ Almirola said. “There’s no comfort. If I sit for too long, it hurts. If I stand up, it feels better for a few minutes and then it starts to hurt. If I lay down, it feels better for a few minutes and then it starts to hurt.

“I can’t really lay on my back because it puts pressure on my spine. I can’t lay for too long on my side because then my spine sags and it puts pressure on it. There’s just a constant ache.’’

For someone whose focus as a child was to be a racer — “racing was Plan A, Plan B and Plan C,’’ he said — sitting out of the car for so long will be difficult. But it won’t be as hard for the 33-year-old as it is for his two children.

They don’t understand daddy is hurt.

“I don’t have a Band-Aid on it. I don’t have blood or a scab, so visually they don’t understand I’ve got a broken bone in my back,’’ Almirola told NBC Sports.

Almirola said he felt a stabbing pain in his back when his car struck Logano’s and the pain intensified when the rear of Almirola’s car slammed the ground.

He felt such a burning sensation that he thought his back was on fire. That’s why he lowered the window net of his car. He wasn’t trying to signal that he was OK, he was trying to get out.

Almriola removed his steering wheel. When he threw it on top of the dash and extended his hands, the pain “took my breath away.’’

He soon saw that he wasn’t on the fire. The son of firefighter, he knew that with his back pain it was important to keep the spine stable. Safety officials cut him out of the car.

William Heisel, director of OrthoCarolina Motorsports, which is treating Almirola, said the driver’s injuries are worse than the compression fracture Denny Hamlin suffered in 2013 in a last-lap crash at Auto Club Speedway.

Heisel also said that Almirola’s injury has “outstanding healing potential.’’

The key is to be patient, Hamlin said. He missed four races because of his injury.

“After about two weeks I felt relatively normal,’’ Hamlin told NBC Sports. “There were certain positions in which I would sit that I would feel it and I knew that it wasn’t right, but I was aching to get in the car as quick as I could. I maybe rushed it a bit, but I feel like we waited until it was safe.

“That’s the frustrating part. Drivers don’t mind not getting in a car when they’re not feeling well, it’s when you feel fine that it hurts.’’

Almirola said he’ll wait as long as doctors want him to before climbing back into the car.

While he recovers, his kids will keep him company. And take care of him.

When daddy needs a water, Abby dutifully runs to the kitchen to retrieve a bottle. When daddy needs fresh ice packs for his back, Alex goes to the freezer to get those.

“We’ve got a pretty good system,’’ Almirola said. “They’re taking pretty good care of me.’’

But they are kids and it’s tough on them that daddy is hurt.

“I’ve been spending a lot of time on the couch,’’ Almirola said. “About our most quality time we’ve had over the last week is sitting on the couch and watching TV. They snuggle up next to me.’’

Those are special moments for Almirola.

“They have a way of making you feeling better for sure when they crawl up on the couch, show you they love you and care about you,’’ he said. “That lasts about five minutes and they’re ready to run around. Alex wants me to get down on the ground and play cars with him. Abby wants me to walk her baby stroller with her, chase them around the house or go out to the front yard and watch them ride their bikes.’’

But each time, his response is the same to them.

“Can’t do that.’’

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With Aric Almirola out, Regan Smith steps into ‘The King’s car’ this weekend

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CONCORD, N.C. — Aric Almirola loomed large over Regan Smith on Friday during his first meeting with the media as driver of the No. 43 Ford.

Smith stood outside the team’s hauler at Charlotte Motor Speedway. An oversized image of Almirola wearing the same firesuit as Smith hovered over the group on the hauler’s rear door.

“It doesn’t quite fit me, he’s a little bit smaller than me,” joked Smith, who is three inches shorter than the 6-foot Almirola.

Three and half hours earlier, Almirola announced in a press conference he would miss at least eight to 12 weeks for a T5 compression fracture in his back. The injury was a result of a fiery crash last weekend at Kansas Speedway.

Smith, a veteran of 211 Cup races and now five high-profile substitutions in the last five years, received his latest call for help Wednesday morning, four days after he and wife Megan watched Almirola’s crash.

“I didn’t know much until then,” Smith said. “Obviously, I knew that he was hurt, but didn’t know to what extreme or anything like that. When they called and said, ‘Hey, can you do this weekend?’  I said, ‘Absolutely.  I’d be honored to and I’d love to,’ and that was pretty much it. … I don’t know if it’s good or bad doing these type of things, but I feel like I’ve got quite a bit of experience at it at this point.  They’re all different and they’re all unique in their own way, but they kind of flow the same way.”

Since 2012, Smith has substituted for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch and Kyle Larson in a total of seven races.

It’s Smith’s reliability that led Richard Petty Motorsports CEO Brian Moffitt to call the driver.

“We feel like he’s gonna bring the car home safe and consistency is what we were looking for and he has that type of record,” Moffitt said. “He drives a lot like Aric and that’s what helped us come to this conclusion.”

The first time the 33-year-old driver stepped into someone else’s car was for Earnhardt in October 2012 at Charlotte after Earnhardt suffered a concussion. Smith was originally going to drive the No. 51 for Phoenix Racing before he received an early morning text message from Earnhardt’s crew chief, Steve Letarte.

“That one was a little more last minute,” Smith said. “That was the day of, nobody knew he was hurt, so I didn’t even have it on my radar.  I was coming here to hop in a different race car and was mentally prepared for that. When you look at this particular situation there was a little bit of time. You could go to the shop. You can sit in the car. You can adjust things. It’s not quite as on the fly as that was.  You mentally kind of prepare for what the weekend is gonna look like and you have an opportunity to sit down and talk.”

Smith is preparing for the Monster Energy Open, the prelude to Saturday night’s All-Star Race. Not eligible for the fan vote, the only way Smith can advance is by winning one of the three stages in the 50-lap Open. He’ll be doing so under the leadership of crew chief Drew Blickensderfer.

“Me and Drew sat down and talked, and we’ve been around each other quite a bit this year anyways with the TV stuff (at Fox Sports 1) that we do, so we’re familiar with each other and we’ve known each other from the past,” Smith said. “I’d have to look, but I’m pretty sure we’ve never worked anywhere together through the years, but it makes it a little bit easier when you do have that time.

“Those other ones I’ve done in the past, where it was literally the day of, you just hoped that you fit and those can be a little bit trickier.  I had one where I hopped in for a guy at a race track. It was years ago at Dover. I think it was (David) Stremme who got sick and couldn’t finish the race and I hopped in during the race. Those are very challenging.”

But the car Smith climbed into Friday is not just any car. It’s the car with the most famous number in NASCAR history. His ride comes as he competes part-time in the Camping World Series following his fifth full-time Cup season.

“When I look back to the end of last season and not knowing what I was doing this year, you never know,” Smith said. “I was kind of thinking I would get an opportunity in a Cup car at some point in some capacity. When this all kind of shook down, I kind of thought about it the other night and I’m like, ‘That’s pretty cool. That’s the King’s car you’re gonna hop into.’ That’s a special car and there’s a lot of history behind that car.”

But his stint in the car, however long it is, will have “more of an emotional investment” due to his friendship with Almirola. The two were teammates at Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 2008 after DEI merged with the team owned by Bobby Ginn.

“We got to know each other really well through all that,” Smith said. “We worked with a lot of the same people. …  I’ve leaned on Aric in a lot of different situations. Him and (wife) Janice are the same age as my wife (Megan) and myself. We’ve both got two kids and we both have two kids with very similar age gaps apart, and last year when we were expecting our second they were two people we leaned on and talked to a lot as to what to expect and what it would look like.”

Smith’s substitute weekend got off to a good start. In the only practice session for the Open, Smith made the No. 43 the sixth fastest car.

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Erik Jones, Clint Bowyer lead Monster Energy Open practice

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The only practice session for the Monster Energy Open was led by Erik Jones, who posted a top speed of 189.056 mph around Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The top five was filled out by Clint Bowyer (187.970), Chase Elliott (186.400), Ryan Blaney (186.021) and AJ Allmendinger (185.893).

Filling in for the injured Aric Almirola, Regan Smith and the No. 43 Ford were sixth fastest.

The Monster Energy Open will send three drivers to the All-Star Race. A fourth driver will advance via a fan vote.

Click here to see the full practice report.