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.”
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.