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Smith steps in as Johnsons welcome baby

September 06, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Smith steps in as Johnsons welcome baby
Regan Smith will stand in for Johnson during practice, qualifying

RICHMOND, Va. -- For Jimmie Johnson, it all unfolded without a hitch -- both the birth of the five-time NASCAR champion’s second daughter, and the plans his No. 48 team had to put a substitute driver in the car.

Johnson and his wife Chandra announced Friday that the couple had welcomed their second child, a daughter born at 2:02 a.m. in Charlotte, N.C. The new arrival, named Lydia Norriss, weighed 5 pounds 10 ounces and was 19 inches long. Both mother and daughter were doing fine, according to a press release, and would remain in the hospital overnight.

Genevieve Marie Johnson meets her sister, Lydia Norriss. (Courtesy @JimmieJohnson)

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Johnson, meanwhile, remained in Charlotte with his family on Friday while his crew went ahead with preparations for Saturday night’s event at Richmond International Raceway, the final contest before the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. The team turned to Regan Smith, a Nationwide Series driver for JR Motorsports -- which is affiliated with Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports outfit -- who would practice and qualify the No. 48 car for the five-time champion, who planned to arrive in time for Saturday’s race.

“This has been the plan all along,” crew chief Chad Knaus said. “We felt like if we went into Loudon weekend, we were going to have some difficulty with the mixed schedule. But we were hoping it was going to come this weekend. We actually tested here a few weeks ago, a company test. Regan came up here and joined us at the test, made some laps in the 48 car. Felt very comfortable in the race car, posted some pretty respectable laps. So it’s actually worked out better than we’d hoped.”

The No. 48 team did have an emergency plan in case Johnson would have been unable to race, but Knaus said that would have gone into effect only if there had been an unforeseen problem or the baby had arrived later than expected. Johnson -- who also has a 3-year-old daughter named Genevieve Marie -- wanted to be in Richmond for Friday’s activities, Knaus said but in the end common sense won out.

“He’s having a good time, he’s enjoying the moment with Chani,” Knaus said. “He really wanted to be here, but after talking with him last night … it made a lot more sense for him to take the day off and spend some time with Chani. That way when he shows up here tomorrow night, he’s actually fresh and ready to go instead of sleep-deprived and wanting to be with his kid.”

Johnson holds a 28-point lead over Clint Bowyer in the Sprint Cup standings. Although he has four race victories to Matt Kenseth’s series-leading five, a win in Richmond would make him the top overall Chase seed because he has more runner-up finishes -- which is the tiebreaker -- than the Joe Gibbs Racing driver.

Getting there, though, is made slightly more complicated with Smith wheeling the car in qualifying Friday. The driver change when Johnson returns means the No. 48 will have to start at the rear of the field Saturday night. Johnson has three career victories at Richmond, the most recent coming in 2008. His average starting position at the .75-mile track is 12.7.

“As poorly as we’ve qualified here, I don’t think the implications will be too bad,” Knaus said. “We start toward the rear typically anyhow. We’re going to go out there, we’re going to qualify as best as we can so we get a solid pit selection, and we’ll have to start at the rear of the field tomorrow. We’ve got 400 laps to try and work our way up there. I’m very confident with it. Regan is actually a fantastic qualifier, we’ve seen that time and time again. So … get a good pit pick and go out there and race.”

Richmond also comes amid a rough stretch for a No. 48 team that hasn’t finished better than 28th in its last three starts. Johnson’s points lead was once big enough that he talked about potentially skipping the Richmond race altogether for the birth of his new baby. Problems the past three weeks subverted that plan, but Knaus said confidence is still high on the eve of the Chase.

“If it was ever to happen, it was a great time for it to happen, and we’re looking forward to the next 11 weeks. We feel like out race cars are fast every weekend, we’ve qualified well, we’ve run very fast in backup cars. So we feel like we’ve got the packages we need, we just need to get out there and try to not have these silly problems,” Knaus said.

“You don’t really focus on that stuff as much ass everybody else does. We focus on how the team is performing, what we’re capable of doing, and how we’re going to approach the situation. And right now we’re coming in with our heads high and our shoulders back, and we’re ready to go. We feel very confident that we’ve got a great race team, and great race cars, and a great driver, and we can go out there and race our way to this championship.”

And Johnson is certainly buoyed by the birth of his new daughter. Knaus said he was receiving text messages all night long as his driver kept him abreast of developments in Charlotte.

“Healthy, all her fingers and all her toes, and all that stuff looks good,” the crew chief said of the new arrival. “Chani’s doing great, and they’re recovering, and hopefully they’ll be home tomorrow.”

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