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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NASCAR fines Ty Gibbs $75,000 for pit road incident at Texas

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NASCAR fined Ty Gibbs $75,000 and docked him 25 points for door-slamming Ty Dillon on pit road during last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Crew members from other teams were nearby when Gibbs hit Dillon’s car, causing it to swerve. No crew members or officials were hit.

NASCAR has made it a priority that drivers are not to cause contact that could injured crew members or officials on pit road. NASCAR also penalized Gibbs 25 Cup driver points and docked 23XI Racing 25 car owner points for the No. 23 Cup car that Gibbs drives.

NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

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NASCAR has docked William Byron 25 points and fined him $50,000 for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution in last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Byron drops from third in the playoff standings to below the cutline heading into Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe moves up to hold the final transfer spot with 3,041 points. Austin Cindric is the first driver outside a transfer spot with 3,034 points. Byron is next at 3,033 points.

Hendrick Motorsports was docked 25 owner points as well.

Hendrick Motorsports stated it would appeal the penalty.

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash. As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

“I felt like he ran me out of race track off of (Turn) 2 and had really hard contact with the wall,” Byron said. “Felt like the toe link was definitely bent, luckily not fully broken. We were able to continue.

“A lot of times that kind of damage is going to ruin your race, especially that hard. I totally understand running somebody close and making a little bit of contact, but that was pretty massive.”

On the retaliatory hit, Byron said: “I didn’t mean to spin him out. That definitely wasn’t what I intended to do. I meant to bump him a little bit and show my displeasure and unfortunately, it happened the way it did. Obviously, when he was spinning out, I was like ‘I didn’t mean to do this,’ but I was definitely frustrated.”

Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart argued and questioned NASCAR for not putting Hamlin back in second place — where he was before Byron hit him — and also questioned Byron not being penalized.

“I guess we can just wreck each other under caution,” Hamlin said after the race.

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told reporters after the race that series officials did not penalize Byron because they did not see the incident. 

“When we were in the tower, we were paying more attention to the actual cause of the caution up there and dispatching our equipment,” Miller said. “The William Byron-Denny Hamlin thing, we had no eyes on. We saw Denny go through the grass.

“By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green.”

Kurt Busch ‘hopeful’ he can return from concussion this year

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kurt Busch said Tuesday he remains “hopeful” he will recover from a concussion in time to race again before the end of the NASCAR Cup season.

The 2004 Cup champion has been sidelined since he crashed July 23 during qualifying at Pocono Raceway. He’s so far missed 10 races – both Ty Gibbs and Bubba Wallace have driven the No. 45 Toyota for 23XI Racing since Busch was injured – and withdrew his eligibility to participate in the playoffs.

“I’m doing good. Each week is better progress and I feel good and I don’t know when I will be back, but time has been the challenge. Father Time is the one in charge on this one,” Busch said.

There are six races remaining this season and 23XI co-owner Denny Hamlin said the team has contingency plans for Busch’s recovery and is not pressuring the 44-year-old to get back in the car. Busch is under contract at 23XI through next season with an option for 2024.

Hamlin said this past weekend at Texas that Busch has a doctor’s visit scheduled in early October that could reveal more about if Busch can return this season.

Busch has attended a variety of events to stimulate his recovery and enjoyed an evening at the rodeo over the weekend. But his visit to Charlotte Motor Speedway on Tuesday for its 10th annual honoring of Breast Cancer Awareness Month was Busch’s first official appearance as a NASCAR driver since his injury.

He attended for the second consecutive year as part of his “Window of Hope” program in which all the window nets on the Cup cars will be pink meshing in next week’s race on The Roval at Charlotte. Busch credited the Toyota Performance Center at TRD’s North Carolina headquarters for helping his recovery and getting him out to events again.

“I feel hopeful. I know I have more doctor visits and distance to go, and I keep pushing each week,” Busch said. “And TPC, Toyota Performance Center, has been a group of angels with the workouts and the vestibular workouts, different nutrition as well and different supplements and things to help everything rebalance with my vision, my hearing. Just my overall balance in general.”

He said his vision is nearly 20/20 in one eye, but his other eye has been lagging behind in recovery. Busch also said he wasn’t sure why he was injured in what appeared to be a routine backing of his car into the wall during a spin in qualifying.

NASCAR this year introduced its Next Gen car that was designed to cut costs and level the playing field, but the safety of the spec car has been under fire since Busch’s crash. Drivers have complained they feel the impact much more in crashes than they did in the old car, and a rash of blown tires and broken parts has plagued the first four races of the playoffs.

Busch said his concussion “is something I never knew would happen, as far as injury” and likened his health battle to that of the breast cancer survivors who aided him in painting the pit road walls at Charlotte pink for next week’s race.

“Each situation is different. It’s similar to a breast cancer survivor. Not every story is the same, not every injury is the same,” Busch said. “It’s not like a broken arm and then you get the cast taken off and can go bench press 300 pounds. It’s a process. I don’t know what journey I’m on, but I’m going to keep pushing.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin returns to first place

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Four races into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs and drivers who are eligible to win the championship remain 0-for-4 in pursuit of race wins.

Tyler Reddick became winner No. 4 on that list Sunday night at Texas Motor Speedway.

And now we go to Talladega Superspeedway, where there is potential for drivers from the far back end of the field to emerge victorious, given the impact of drafting and, more significantly, wrecking.

Sunday’s tire-exploding, wall-banging, car-wrestling craziness at Texas Motor Speedway jumbled the playoff standings again, and the same is true for the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, which see a new leader in Denny Hamlin.

MORE: Winners and losers at Texas

Hamlin could be a busy guy the rest of the season. His potential retaliation list grew Sunday with the addition of William Byron after they had a major disagreement.

Here’s how the rankings look in the middle of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Denny Hamlin (No. 3 last week) — Despite everything — the tires, the wrecks, the hassle, the weather and a brouhaha with William Byron, Hamlin finished 10th Sunday and is sixth in the playoff standings entering Talladega. He has the best average finish — 5.75 — in the playoff races. Unless his “list” gets in the way, Hamlin might be ready to seriously challenge for his first championship.

2. Kyle Larson (No. 4 last week) — Larson led 19 laps at Texas and probably should have led more with one of the race’s best cars. Now fourth in points, he figures to be a factor over the final two weeks of the round.

3. Chase Elliott (No. 2 last week) — Elliott was not a happy camper after smashing the wall because of a tire issue and riding a flaming car to a halt. He finished 32nd.

4. Joey Logano (No. 6 last week) — Logano was chasing down winner Tyler Reddick in the closing laps at Texas. He jumps to first in the playoff standings and gains two spots in NBC’s rankings.

5. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron might be No. 1 on Denny Hamlin’s list; here he slides in at No. 5.

6. Christopher Bell (No. 1 last week) — Bell had a rotten Sunday in Texas, crashing not once but twice with tire issues and finishing 34th, causing a precipitous drop on the rankings list.

7. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain’s team played the tires and the cautions right and probably deserved better than a 13th-place finish Sunday.

8. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Mr. Winless (except in All-Star dress) rolls on. A fourth-place run (and 29 laps led) Sunday keeps him relevant.

9. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe’s Texas run started poorly but ended nicely with a fifth-place run.

10. Tyler Reddick (unranked last week) — Reddick Sunday became the only driver not named Chase Elliott with more than two race wins this year. Now totaling three victories, he got his first oval win at Texas.

Dropped out: Alex Bowman (No. 10 last week).