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Regan Smith out to prove he's worth Sunday ride

February 07, 2014, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com

JR Motorsports driver looks to contend for Nationwide title, earn a Sunday spot

In looking back at the 2013 season, Regan Smith knows where things went wrong, where the once-commanding 58-point lead in the NASCAR Nationwide Series standings fizzled. He also knows where the pressure to regain the advantage took its toll on driver and team alike. 

One year later and one year wiser, Smith has distinct, direct goals on his to-do list -- not the least of which is a return to NASCAR's premier division.

"I would say this year is about two things for me -- it's about winning the championship and proving to the right owner that I need to be back racing on Sundays," Smith said. "That's as brutally honest as I can put it. That's what the goals are. I'd want to be back there tomorrow if I could. With that said, I'm focused on what the goals are in the Nationwide Series this year and winning the championship for JR Motorsports, but I've got goals long-term as a driver as well and I'd like to see those through."

For the short-term, Smith is back for his second season at the wheel of the JRM No. 7, eager to bolster his credentials in NASCAR's second-tier series. He returns with much the same crew and equipment, plus a new crew chief in Ryan Pemberton, whom he was paired with briefly in 2007.

Smith also returns with a point to prove. After he parted ways with Furniture Row Racing during the 2012 season, the 30-year-old New York native found refuge with Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s team, winning that year's finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway and establishing himself as a title contender with a full-time Nationwide campaign ahead. 

Smith held the championship lead from early May to mid-July, grabbing the initial lead with a wild, photo-finish win at Talladega Superspeedway. He pushed the margin to a high mark of 58 points with his second victory of the season, in June at Michigan International Speedway. From there, the foundation unraveled -- Smith collected just four top-five finishes in the final 20 races of the season, eventually fading to a distant third in the standings, 72 points back of series champion Austin Dillon

Instead of bearing down and staying the course when the lead shrank, Smith said the situation spiraled.

"When you look back on it, in hindsight we kind of did things desperate too early in the year," Smith said. "I think as a team, we learned a lesson there. As a driver, I know I did. I started doing stuff a little bit differently and maybe pressing a little too hard at times and making mistakes that I hadn't made early on in the season. That kind of continued on. There was enough blame for it to go around. We all had a hand in it. There were 10 of us on our team and we all could've done stuff better, myself included, and at the end of the day, we didn't.

"You've got to learn from those lessons and you've got to make sure you use them the following year and do better." 

Another helping hand comes from the offseason addition of rookie teammate Chase Elliott, who brings stability to the JR Motorsports lineup. A patchwork of seven drivers shared seat time for the team's second car over 33 races last year; this season, Smith will turn to a familiar face for feedback on a given race weekend. 

"It was obviously a lot of very talented guys, but week in and week out, you had different personalities, you had different feels in the race car out of different drivers," Smith said of his 2013 cast of teammates. "Toward the end of the year, we got a little consistency with Brad (Sweet) being in it more often, but with that said, we're going to have a teammate that's running the whole year that we know if we go one direction in practice and they go another direction, we can look at what they did or vice versa ... and ultimately I'll end up back at a point that's, 'this is going to work.' 

"That's going to take a little bit of the stress off of being a one-car team, which is what it kind of felt like at times, and it's going to give us more opportunity to dabble with stuff a little." 

One uncertainty that Smith hasn't quite figured out is what to do with himself after the season-opening Drive4COPD 300 on Feb. 22. Barring a last-minute deal for The Great American Race, Smith will miss the Daytona 500 for the first time since 2007. "Am I just going to drive home? Am I going to stay down there?'" Smith wondered out loud. "I don't know what I'm going to do." 

If one of his Nationwide Series goals is met this year, that may not be an issue come 2015.

"Confidence is sky-high," Smith said. "We've got the same cars, the same key people -- if anything, faster cars because we've learned a lot since this time last year, so I think from that standpoint, I go into the season as confident as ever and as motivated as ever."

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