Smith would welcome opportunity in No. 14
August 10, 2013, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
Earnhardt Jr. would support move, if offered; Larson also open to seat
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- While Stewart-Haas Racing Director of Competition Greg Zipadelli didn’t offer to name names or project duration, he did make it clear Friday at Watkins Glen International that there is a short list of drivers to consider for Tony Stewart’s prized No. 14 Chevrolet while the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion recovers from a broken right leg.
Scheduling may be a challenge if SHR opts to go with a Nationwide regular, however. That series races at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course next Saturday while the Cup series is in Michigan. The other conflict is next month. Nationwide races at Kentucky on Sept. 21 and the Cup Series is in New Hampshire for a Sept. 22 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup date.
There is still no timeline on how long Stewart will be sidelined. He remains hospitalized in North Carolina recovering from a second surgery on his broken right leg. Road racing ace Max Papis is in the famed No. 14 Chevy this week, but Zipadelli said the team would like to name a more permanent replacement even as soon as Monday.
“We would love to put somebody in the car until Tony comes back,’’ Zipadelli explained Friday, stating his preference to find one driver instead of rotating several. “The problem we are faced with next week is if you look at the schedules and you lay out the Nationwide schedule at Mid-Ohio and us in Michigan, they don’t match up very well. Somebody would do two half-assed jobs; or we can try and find somebody that is out of the norm and put them in the car and try to go to Michigan and do the best we can.
“Then hopefully maybe Bristol we could pick up with one person that maybe able to do the rest of it and obviously it would be a Nationwide driver. There are a couple of really good people that we have talked to. There are an awful lot of people that have reached out and obviously a lot of people would love to get in that car.
“Right now we are taking it slow; we spent a lot of time on this week. Obviously we had a lot of stuff with our sponsors and we are trying to keep them as involved as we can. They are very important partners to Stewart-Haas and our future. We are trying to weed out, give them some options and get their input. Just try and do everything in the right way.”
Smith, who spent seven years at the Cup level including four full-time, has won once in 171 Cup starts and has made no bones about his desire to return to the Cup level.
And his biggest supporter in that quest just may be his current boss in the Nationwide Series, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who said Friday he thought Smith would be a great fit for the 14-seat.
“I’d be the first to put Regan’s name in the hat for that kind of opportunity,’’ Earnhardt said Friday. “I understand that we are racing for a championship and I think that could actually help Regan understand. It would be a challenge, but I think it could help him on some ways and be an advantage to him maybe to have the extra track time and just be able to have some other ideas in his head about what can improve his car.
“I would be for that and it would also give him an opportunity to showcase himself and give himself possibly a chance to get some interest on the Cup side as far as ownership goes and get some guys maybe wanting to put him back in the car full time on this side of the deal. That would be good for him.’’
Smith -- who has a pair of wins in Nationwide this season and currently sits second in the championship standings -- said he has had no discussions with SHR, but was grateful for Earnhardt’s recommendation. Coincidentally, Smith filled in for Earnhardt for two races in 2013 when Earnhardt was sidelined following a concussion.
“Certainly I appreciate Dale saying that, you know, that means a lot to me and you know, it’s a situation where I think any driver would relish that opportunity,” Smith said. “It’s just unfortunate under the circumstances. I don’t think any of us -- and unfortunately I had experience with this last year -- none of us ever wish to get an opportunity because our competitors have an issue or get injured, and you know, first and foremost we're thinking about Tony and him getting better as soon as he can and his safety and health.
“But outside of that it's going to be a great opportunity for somebody to hop into a fast race car and get a chance to showcase themselves and you know, I certainly would be open to the possibilities of that.
“I haven't even looked at the schedule for Mid-Ohio and Michigan personally, so I couldn't even tell you how they line up. I didn’t figure they would, I know we got a lot of practice time at mid-Ohio so, you know, you just cross that bridge whenever it comes time and you know, you see how things line up.”
Larson, who is competing in sprint car racing's marquee Knoxville Nationals this weekend in addition to his Nationwide duties, was similarly enthusiastic about the opportunity to drive Stewart's car.
He actually finished second in the same race the veteran was injured in earlier this week. But like Smith, he said he personally had not had any talks with SHR.
"It would definitely be a great opportunity for me, but obviously not the opportunity you'd want to get with Tony getting injured,'' Larson said Saturday morning. "But if that came up, it would be great. I'd get experience in a Cup car and that's the main thing.
"I just hope Tony has a speedy recovery and comes back racing with us all.''
Asked directly about Larson, Zipadelli said he was open-minded in the search but seemed a bit cautious about having the 21-year old Nationwide rookie take on too much too soon.
“Kyle Larson is obviously an awesome race car driver. I think we are only seeing the beginnings of what he has to offer to the sport,’’ Zipadelli said when asked directly about Larson. “I think he is at a really crucial spot in his career of learning everything he can and not getting ‘fed to the wolves’ too soon would you say.
“I think I would prefer to put from this point on put one person in that we felt was capable of doing a good solid job and trying to build some chemistry with the crew and the crew chief. There are a lot of those little details that make up for a good day on Sunday.”
As Smith cautioned, there are a lot of moving parts and even more speculation right now, but clearly anyone would consider the opportunity to fill-in for Stewart too good to pass up.
“I think it’s a lot of hypotheticals right now, you know,” Smith said. “I don’t know what the folks at Stewart-Haas are having to work around and things like that so I can’t speak to any of that, other than the fact that I know that it’s a situation where they’re concerned about their driver and getting him healthy.
“So short of just simply stating the obvious that it’s a fast race car and whoever gets that opportunity is obviously going to get a chance to showcase their ability and you know, that does not happen every day in our sport, that seats of that quality open up for whatever reason it may be.”