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Smith, JRM chase elusive Nationwide points lead

May 04, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Smith, JRM chase elusive Nationwide points lead
One point separates driver from leader Sam Hornish Jr.

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TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Regan Smith had to stop and think. The last time he had led the points standings in a racing series? Not since his move into NASCAR, he knew. Perhaps more than a decade ago in his Hooters ProCup days. More likely, when he was a teenager in the Allison Legacy Series.

“It’s been a while,” he said. “It would be a cool deal, but it doesn’t pay anything to lead it right now. Our focus is further down the road.”

Even so, should Smith emerge as the NASCAR Nationwide Series points leader after Saturday’s event at Talladega Superspeedway, it would prove a notable first for both him and his race team. Despite a successful stint with future NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski, JR Motorsports has never seen one of its drivers atop NASCAR’s No. 2 circuit. But that possibility exists this weekend, given that Smith trails leader Sam Hornish Jr. of Penske Racing by a single point.

"It would be a cool deal, but it doesn’t pay anything to lead it right now."

-- Regan Smith

Hornish and Smith have proven to be the class of the Nationwide field so far this season, with third-place driver Brian Scott 23 points off the lead. Being atop the standings is nothing new for Penske, which owns the most recent Sprint Cup title thanks to Keselowski, who also has a Nationwide crown to his credit. And although Hornish is chasing his first NASCAR title, he owns a trio of IndyCar championships -- one of them for Penske -- in addition to an Indianapolis 500 ring.

Then there’s JRM, which has competed at the Nationwide level since 2005, and restructured after last season to try and reclaim the form it showed a few years earlier. The changes have already borne fruit, given that Smith won last year’s Nationwide finale in his first start with the team, and has been a contender in almost every event since. Reaching the top of the standings -- and taking a foothold toward a potential championship -- remains the next step to take.

“I think it says a lot about the changes we made over the last several months to try to turn things around and get the program more competitive,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who owns the team along with Rick Hendrick and sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller. “I think it raises awareness to potential partners for us to help us afford to put a great competitive team on the race track. It says a lot about Regan. It says a lot about the employees that we have there and how competitive they are and how talented they are. It says a lot. I’m excited about that. I’m excited about their potential this year.”

Although JRM has never led the Nationwide standings, it’s come close -- Keselowski stood second for nine weeks of the 2008 campaign. Keselowski was also third for much of 2009, and Aric Almirola was third for two weeks in 2011. The organization slipped after that, leading to a flurry of personnel moves last year that included the departures of crew chief Tony Eury Jr. and competition director Tony Eury Sr. -- also Earnhardt’s cousin and uncle, respectively. Smith was brought in after subbing for Earnhardt when the Sprint Cup star missed two races due to a concussion.

His victory at Homestead was the organization’s first since Jamie McMurray prevailed in 2010. Smith would likely have the Nationwide Series lead already had he not been involved in the massive final-lap crash at Daytona that sent Kyle Larson’s car in the catchfence -- an accident that began with Smith, going for the victory, tried to block Keselowski off the final corner. Since then Smith and crew chief Greg Ives have been almost flawless, their only finish outside the top-10 an 11th-place result at Phoenix.

“We can’t get those points back,” he said of Daytona, where he wound up 14th. “We’d love to have them back, and that certainly hurts our average this year. We’ve only had one race we felt like was just off, and that was Phoenix. We had a three-hour car ride to Vegas, and we all talked about it, and talked about things we’d do different going back, and I think if we raced that race the next day, we’d have had a top-five car. Outside of that, it’s just been a steady process of, how do we get a little bit better next time, and things like that.”

It shows -- the last five races, the No. 7 car hasn’t finished worse than the number on its door. In a series featuring many younger drivers, Earnhardt believes a veteran like Smith has an advantage, if he can overcome the frustration he sometimes feels inside the vehicle.

“He has a bit of a temper sometimes,” Earnhardt said. “If he can just kind of keep that in check, he has a great chance. He has got a good team around him. They are going to get better, I think, because they just started working together at the start of this year. The potential there is through the roof for those guys, if they can just all work together, and stay on a good positive path mentally with each other, and work together well. They have to go to the race track every week and try to do the best they can, and stay out of trouble.”

Asked about his temper, Smith laughed and admitted sometimes he can vent over the radio. That’s when he’s helped by the presence of Ives, who won five Sprint Cup titles as lead engineer for Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 team. “He’s very calm, he’s very collected, he’s been in a lot of situations I’ve never been in,” Smith said. “He understands -- OK, can’t fix that right now, just shut up and do your job. That’s one of his strengths.”

Smith can also bend the ear of his car owner. He said he and Earnhardt will chat or text after races, with the 19-time winner on the Sprint Cup tour providing whatever insight he can. “He’ll give me a straight answer,” Smith said. He hopes to keep leaning on Earnhardt for advice all the way down to Homestead -- when taking the series lead would really mean something.

“Yeah, we’d love to lead the points,” he said. “… It’s good for all of our partners. Anytime you can lead the points, that means they’re chasing you, and you’re not the one chasing. There are (39) guys chasing, there’s one guy being chased. I think more than anything, that would put us in the position we want to be in of being chased. I think that’s the main thing. But if we can get to Homestead and be leading the points after that one, then it would be symbolic.”

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