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Smith, Crafton prove strong as last-minute subs

February 22, 2015, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com

Crafton: 'It was very, very tough, but that's what we get paid to do'

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- NASCAR's first Sprint Cup Series race since 2001 without a driver named Busch in the field featured two high-profile substitutes in stock-car racing's highest-profile event. In the end, keeping a low profile worked out for both late-hour fill-ins.

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Both Matt Crafton and Regan Smith had hopes for higher finishes from their Daytona 500 experience Sunday at Daytona International Speedway, but each gave their teams some solace amid the Daytona Speedweeks disarray with clean, respectable results.

Smith -- a former Sprint Cup Series regular, now a title hopeful in the NASCAR XFINITY Series -- finished 16th behind the wheel of the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 41 Chevrolet as a late substitute for Kurt Busch, who was suspended indefinitely by NASCAR for his off-the-track legal issues. Crafton, the two-time defending champion of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, made his Sprint Cup debut on the sport's biggest stage, finishing 18th in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota in place of Kyle Busch, who remains sidelined indefinitely after suffering multiple lower leg injuries in Saturday's XFINITY Series opener.

Smith's seventh Daytona 500 was hampered by an ill-handling car, made worse by one, a lack of practice time after being named Kurt Busch's replacement late Friday night, and two, weather conditions far warmer than the rest of the week leading up to the Great American Race. 

"Started off really tight with the race car and never got it turning," said Smith, who made his 173rd Sprint Cup start Sunday. "I don't know, kind of frustrating. I actually anticipated a much better day and nothing much more to show for it. Those guys did a nice job all weekend but we just plowed through the corners."

Still, Smith managed to keep the car straight in the midst of increasingly intense racing in the aerodynamic draft during the final laps, drawing praise from Tony Gibson, the team's veteran crew chief. SHR shifted Gibson over to the No. 41 team with three races remaining last season in an effort to build some early chemistry with Busch leading into 2015. When Busch's suspension was handed down Friday and both options for appeals were exhausted Saturday, Gibson and Co. were forced to uproot their original plan for starting the year with momentum. 

"It's tough on guys," Gibson said. "We were all so pumped up at the beginning of the season. We had three races last year and were really good, then we go to Vegas and have a tire test and he's just blistering fast. We come into here wanting to start off with a win or a top-five and get us going. Yeah, it's hard to keep morale up, but that's my job to be that coach and that guy that keeps everybody swinging, and that's my plan."

Crafton became an even-later replacement for Kyle Busch, receiving a call at 7 p.m. ET Saturday night that he was the top pick for the interim Daytona 500 ride. Already back at his North Carolina home after racing in the Truck Series opener Friday night, Crafton was whisked back to Florida, fitted for the car and plugged in for his first Sprint Cup start.

"Pretty gnarly," said Crafton, who lacked any benefit of practice but leaned instead on his 339 career truck starts. "It was very, very tough, but that's what we get paid to do -- drive race cars and figure it out quick. I felt fine, just my back from being in that seat hurt. Under yellows I would loosen up the belts as much as I could and just try to bow myself up in the seat just because my back was just cramped so unbelievably bad. We made it."

With an unexpected driver change to start the season, JGR found itself in similar fettle to Stewart-Haas Racing. The Daytona 500 was intended to serve as a kickoff to the Gibbs' team's realignment of crew chiefs, in particular the pairing of Adam Stevens with Kyle Busch. Instead, the No. 18 team resorted to Plan B, even though the injured driver has already been lobbying from his hospital bed about making a hasty return. 

"Everybody is in high spirits to start this season. We got the wind taken out of our sails yesterday, but we've all been in communication with Kyle and we know that he's a strong person and he's going to come back stronger than ever," Stevens said. "Whatever the doctors tell him, he's probably going to shave about three or four weeks off of that and be beating on our door. I'm sure he'll be in my office sometime next week talking about how we're going to make this happen."

The backup plan remains murky for both organizations once the Sprint Cup Series hits Atlanta Motor Speedway next weekend. In naming their Daytona 500 replacements, neither team went on to indicate who would drive their cars in the second race of the season.

While that component of the 2015 campaign remains up in the air, both teams have some consolation of emerging from Daytona with better-than-middling results after making last-minute alterations behind the wheel.

"When you have a bad finish at Daytona, it makes it really, really hard to overcome, so for us and the road we're traveling down right now, we want to log as many points as we can get and have that cushion there, so when Kurt comes back, we'll be ready to roll," Gibson said, adding that he'll prepare the No. 41 with an eye open for Busch's return. "That's the best we can do. We'll just take it one race at a time, one day at a time, and when they come down and tell me who's driving it each week, that's what we'll do, and we'll approach it like Kurt's driving it every week and we'll adjust on it and do the best we can."

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