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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.

NASCAR investigation into Aric Almriola crash continues

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CONCORD, N.C. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. says he’s confident that NASCAR will understand what caused Aric Almirola’s injury last weekend at Kansas Speedway and said he talked to Almirola about the crash Wednesday night.

“Having talked with NASCAR a lot over the last couple of years, I feel really good about how proactive they are,’’ Earnhardt said Thursday after revealing the Maaco-sponsored car he’ll drive in Saturday night’s Monster Energy All-Star Race. “They have specific individuals, that’s their job every day to science this stuff out and be looking at ways to improve.’’

Earnhardt saw Almirola at Wednesday night’s Catwalk for a Cause charity event held by the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation.

“I talked to Aric (Wednesday) night and he said when his car went in the air, both rear springs fell out of the car so the car came back down and hit the frame,’’ Earnhardt said. “He said it was the highest recorded G-force vertically that they’ve ever seen. I can imagine that if the car slams down on the chassis.’’

A NASCAR source told NBC Sports that it could not confirm that the springs were knocked out of the car. Rear coil springs must be tethered to the chassis and truck trailing arm by a fiber cable, according to section 20.2.3.4 of the NASCAR Cup Rule Book.

Richard Petty Motorsports confirmed to NBC Sports that NASCAR still has Almirola’s wrecked No. 43 car as its investigation continues.

Last weekend’s crash started when a parts failure in the right front of Joey Logano’s car caused his No. 22 Ford to veer into the rear of Danica Patrick’s car. Patrick’s No. 10 Ford  turned up the track and slammed the wall. Almriola could not avoid the incident and his No. 43 Ford crashed into Logano’s car, the impact sending the rear of Almirola’s car in the air.

Almirola suffered a compression fracture to his T5 vertebra in the crash. Richard Petty Motorsports has not stated how long Almirola will be out, but the team has a press conference scheduled Friday morning at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Regan Smith will drive the car this weekend. The team is not qualified for the All-Star Race and will have to advance through Saturday’s Monster Energy Open. Smith told NBC Sports that nothing has been set beyond this week with the team.

Smith, who also is competing in the Camping World Truck Series this weekend at Charlotte, said he would be available for upcoming weekends if RPM needed him.

“Aric’s a friend, and if I can do anything to help that team continue to move forward, the direction he’s had them going, then that’s what I’m going to try to do,’’ said Smith, who has previously served as a substitute driver for Earnhardt, Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart and Kyle Larson.

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Regan Smith will replace Aric Almirola for All-Star Race weekend

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Richard Petty Motorsports announced that Regan Smith will drive the No. 43 Ford in place of Aric Almirola in the Monster Energy Open Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The event offers transfer spots to Saturday’s All-Star Race.

In a brief advisory Wednesday, the team didn’t provide details on who will drive beyond the All-Star weekend. RPM will hold a news conference Friday at the track with Almirola to discuss his recovery plan from a T5 compression fracture in a crash Saturday night at Kansas Speedway.

Almirola slid into a high-speed collision with the cars of Joey Logano and Danica Patrick during the Go Bowling 400. The contact lifted the rear of Almirola’s car up a few feet.

Safety workers cut the root off the car to extricate him and placed him on a backboard. He was airlifted to the University of Kansas Medical Center and spent the night there. He was released Sunday morning. The team reported that he was mobile.

The accident started when something broke on Logano’s car. That caused him to veer into Patrick’s car. Almirola was further behind but could not avoid the incident.

Two weeks ago, Almirola was in a position to contend for a playoff spot.

He finished fourth at Talladega Superspeedway and was one point out of the final playoff spot at that time. NASCAR announced three days later that his car failed the “post-race rear wheel steer” of the Laser Inspection Station. NASCAR docked Almirola 35 points and suspended crew chief Drew Blickensderfer three points races. Blickensderfer also was fined $65,000 and the team was docked 35 owner points.

Smith has built a reputation as a “super sub” in NASCAR, filling in for Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. since 2012.

Dustin Long contributed to this story.

Regan Smith to drive select Truck races for Ricky Benton Racing

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Regan Smith has a part-time ride for the 2017 racing season in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.

“We are looking at running 10-12 races this year with Regan,” Ricky Benton Racing team owner Rick Benton told NBC Sports in an email Wednesday.

The story was first reported by JeffGluck.com.

“I wasn’t done racing — don’t count me out yet,” Smith told Gluck. “It’s just nothing was playing out to be in a good situation in Cup this year.”

Friends for nearly 20 years, Smith and Benton had previously talked about racing together, but as Gluck noted, the timing had never worked out.

Smith’s first run in the No. 92 Ford will be the season-opening race at Daytona. He’ll remain in the truck for the following five races, through Dover on June 2. The rest of the races Smith will drive are undecided.

Smith told Gluck he’d like replicate the start NASCAR On NBC analyst Parker Kligerman had in the No. 92 last season with three straight top-10 finishes: third at Daytona and eighth at both Atlanta and Martinsville.

“If we could duplicate the start we had last year, that would be an ideal situation,” Smith told Gluck. “Then we could aim for top 10s and try to stay up there.

“We have to work to get consistency a little bit, but I think the sky’s the limit. There’s some really good people down there.”

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