DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – From the couch to the cockpit, Regan Smith will enjoy a much better seat for Sunday’s Daytona 500.
Instead of watching the winner’s celebration on TV, he could be playing the starring role in the 57th running of the Great American Race.
“The biggest difference is I’ve got an opportunity to hop in a race car that’s more than capable of winning the Daytona 500,” Smith said Saturday morning before practicing the No. 41 Chevrolet in place of suspended Kurt Busch. “I want to make the most of that opportunity.”
Smith, who has become somewhat of a super sub in NASCAR’s premier series the past two years, has exhibited the ability to make a winning cameo on a restrictor-plate track in the Sprint Cup Series.
He actually took the checkered flag in the October 2008 race at Talladega Superspeedway while driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc., but the victory was disallowed and handed to Tony Stewart after NASCAR ruled Smith had gone below the yellow line to win.
In his two most recent starts in Cup plate races, Smith finished seventh in the 2013 Daytona 500 and sixth at Talladega two months later while driving for Phoenix Racing.
He will have a car equipped with the same Hendrick Motorsports-supplied chassis and engine Sunday at Daytona International Speedway, where Busch will miss the season opener after being indefinitely suspended Friday.
Smith spent Saturday morning getting acclimated with Busch’s ride, being fitted for the seat and learning the locations for toggle switches and buttons. He then drove in the final practice session.
“There are different things to worry about with the Cup car as compared to the Xfinity car,” said Smith, who has driven for JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series the past two seasons and finished third and second in points with three victories. “It might take 15 to 20 laps to understand where (the cars) jump sideways. The situations should be similar, outside of that, and I anticipate it being relatively seamless.”
Smith, who spent Friday practicing for Saturday afternoon’s Xfinity race at Daytona, said he can’t explain his excellence in plate races.
“I wish I knew what led to the success,” he said. “There’s a certain level of comfort at this style of racing (and) trying to outthink guys.”
The Cato, N.Y., native, whose claim to fame is a victory in the 2011 Southern 500, already has familiarity with Stewart-Haas Racing. Last year, he filled in at Watkins Glen International for Tony Stewart, who missed the race after striking and killing Kevin Ward Jr. in a sprint car race. He also filled in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway in October 2012 when a concussion sidelined NASCAR’s most popular driver for two races.
No. 41 crew chief Tony Gibson told Smith the team still believes it can win with Smith.
“I’d say anytime you have a chance to hop in a car that’s fast and more than capable of winning races, you always have an opportunity to showcase your talent,” Smith said. “You have to think that way. I absolutely think we have a shot to win this race.”
He also will have a familiar spotter in Rick Carelli (who worked with Smith a few years ago).
Tony Stewart said last week that SHR had a contingency plan in place if Busch was removed from the car because of a protective order sought by his ex-girlfriend (it was granted Monday by a Delaware family court). Smith said he hadn’t had discussions with SHR about the ride beyond Daytona, nor had he spoken yet with Busch.
“I don’t know if I will or won’t,” he said. “Naturally since he’s been driving the car, it would be beneficial to talk to him and what can I expect out of this car. So if that opportunity presents, we’ll discuss that stuff. Outside of that, I haven’t spoken to him.”
He has been in regular contact with his wife, Megan, who is expecting their first child in a few weeks.
“My wife and I have a very good relationship,” Smith said with a laugh. “We had discussions prior to this happening. I asked her to keep her legs crossed as long as she can if she goes into labor. We’ll do what we can.”