Meet NASCAR’s super sub: Regan Smith parachutes into another ride as the substitute for Kyle Larson

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Regan Smith awoke at 5:30 a.m. to an urgent text message and a familiar feeling.

It was time to hop into another Sprint Cup driver’s car and play the role of super sub in NASCAR’s premier series.

“I’d rather be racing then watching on TV,” Smith said Friday morning after arriving at Martinsville Speedway, where he replaced Kyle Larson in the Target-sponsored No. 42 Chevrolet. “I’m OK with that. I’ve made it clear I want to get back to doing this on a more permanent basis on the Cup side, so if being the guy everyone calls on can help lead to that down the road, that’s great.

“These situations aren’t easy. You’re hopping in someone else’s car, somebody else’s setup, guys and trying to plug yourself in as best you can and do as good as you can. You try to make the most of it.”

Smith, who is in his third season of driving for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series, has become quite familiar with that role.

When Earnhardt missed two races with a concussion late in the 2012 season, Smith took over the No. 88 Chevrolet. When Tony Stewart pulled out of a race at Watkins Glen International last August, Smith was rushed to upstate New York to drive the No. 14 Chevy. When Kurt Busch was suspended for the first three races this season because of domestic violence allegations, Smith piloted the No. 41 Chevy to three consecutive top 20s.

So when Larson was sent to the hospital Saturday afternoon after fainting during an autograph appearance at Martinsville, Smith naturally was contacted by Chip Ganassi Racing.

After a seat fitting Saturday night at the team’s shop in Concord, N.C., Smith, who wasn’t racing this weekend because the Xfinity circuit is off, set his alarm for 5:30 a.m. and went to bed mentally prepared to head Sunday to Martinsville for his first start at the 0.526-mile oval in two years.

“There’ll be a lot of challenges today,” said Smith, who posted a best finish of 14th  at Martinsville while sporadically running full time in Sprint Cup between 2008-11. “I haven’t been here in a while. When you have to start 43rd like we will, the leaders are there quick. It’s a struggle just to stay on lead lap. If we can do that and find a position we’re able to get track position, then great. We’ll take advantage where we can.”

Smith will be in a modified seat normally used by Larson’s teammate Jamie McMurray, who offered some pointers on setup and tires when Smith arrived Sunday morning.

Though it was a whirlwind for the Cato, N.Y., native (who had planned on spending Sunday with his wife and newborn son in between working on a new house), the lessons of driving for every new team are valuable

             “Getting a lot of experience with different people, different teams and learning how every place works,” Smith said. “Every place is different. Every place has different operations. Every crew chief talks different. Every spotter talks different. It’s difficult. Any time you can get in a rhythm and have your own deal, it’s obviously easier. It’s still a race car with a steering wheel and gas pedals. You still do the same stuff with it. You can work around a lot of that.”

That experience makes the process of parachuting into a substitute rule a little smoother – but not necessarily easier.

“I don’t know it gets easier,” he said. “You know what to look for sooner and what areas to work on the most. But it never gets easier. You’d always rather be in your seat.