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Can Smith turn a win into a championship?

January 07, 2013, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com

smith-photo

With one start and one win for the team, JRM's newest driver hopes to keep up momentum

Although he has just one career start with his current team, it should come as no surprise that driver Regan Smith and officials with JR Motorsports fully expect to contend for the 2013 NASCAR Nationwide Series championship.

Based on how well that single start turned out, it would be something of a surprise if those involved felt otherwise.

“It was a case where we definitely learned some things,” Smith said of his winning effort with JRM in last year’s season-ending race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. 

"Honestly, I thought he would probably want to take a different Cup offer; you don’t expect someone to be willing to step away from that series."

-- Kelley Earnhardt-Miller

“Some of what we learned was what not to do; some of it was the direction we need to go in this year. But I definitely think we took a lot out of it.”

As a result, he said, “we’re going to have some pretty lofty goals for 2013.”

It will be a fresh start for Smith, 29, who for the past five seasons toiled in the Sprint Cup Series, most recently with the Denver-based Furniture Row Racing team, winning once (at Darlington in 2011) yet finishing no higher than 24th in points.

When Furniture Row released Smith before the end of the 2012 season, passing inquiries about driving for JRM suddenly became much more intense.

“When I knew he was going to be leaving … he was a guy we had our eye on,” Kelley Earnhardt-Miller, JRM team co-owner and general manager, said of Smith. “Honestly, I thought he would probably want to take a different Cup offer; you don’t expect someone to be willing to step away from that series.”

Smith, she said, “fits well” with what her younger brother and team founder Dale Earnhardt Jr. likes.

“Regan’s had his stint in the Cup series but he’s still young and still has the potential to make a mark in the sport,” she said.

Greg Ives, a former team engineer at Hendrick Motorsports, was named crew chief for the No. 7 team late last year. His lack of crew chief experience isn’t a concern for Smith or Earnhardt-Miller. More telling, they said, are the five consecutive Cup championships he helped driver Jimmie Johnson earn while at Hendrick.

“Obviously his background speaks for itself,” Smith said. “He’s got five championships in seven years and that’s a pretty big deal no matter what you’re doing, (but) especially at the Cup level. And obviously he’s worked with (crew chief) Chad Knaus, one of the best there is in the business.”

“He’s definitely qualified,” Earnhardt-Miller said. “A real straight-shooter; a no B.S. kind of guy.”

Putting a winning driver such as Smith behind the wheel, she said, will go a long way in confirming how competitive the organization’s cars are on the track. Taking nothing away from Danica Patrick and Cole Whitt, who ran full-time for the group last season, Earnhardt-Miller added, “it’s just an experience factor."

“It takes it all to come together from the standpoint of the driver, the team and the cars," she said. "In 2008 and 2009 we had the ability to have someone like Brad (Keselowski) in the car … but also had a car we called the all-star car, where we ran different drivers with some experience. So we were able to showcase what the cars could do. And obviously Brad excelled in the cars even as a rookie. You don’t get that every time; they’re not all Brad Keselowskis.”

Smith said he is still working with Phoenix Racing to possibly compete in a handful of Cup races in 2013. He will test with the team later this week, during Preseason Thunder at Daytona International Speedway. But his focus, he said, will be on contending for the Nationwide Series championship.

“I feel like we’ve got every piece to the puzzle in place,” he said. “We’ve been given every tool that we need to go out and succeed. It’s our job to make sure we use those tools.

“I can promise you one thing: we will go into every race this year with the mentality that we’re going to win that race.”