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Elliott's misfortune helps Smith retake points lead

May 24, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Smith will act as Jeff Gordon's fill-in in the Coca-Cola 600 if need be

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CONCORD, N.C. -- Chase Elliott experienced another first on Saturday, but not the kind the Nationwide Series phenom would prefer to remember.

The JR Motorsports driver endured the worst outing in his brief, but otherwise bright career on NASCAR's No. 2 series, struggling with a broken part in his car at Charlotte Motor Speedway and finishing well off the pace in 37th. It was easily the lowest finish this season for Elliott, who previously hadn't placed outside the top 20, and it cost him the lead in the standings to boot.

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"Something wasn’t right from qualifying, from the beginning of the race, all the way until it broke. So I don’t know if something was wrong there, or if we were just that bad," Elliott said in the garage area after the History 300, won by Sprint Cup Series rookie Kyle Larson. "I want to say something was wrong, but we might have been that bad and had something break."

The primary beneficiary of Elliott's misfortunate was his JR Motorsports teammate Regan Smith, who finished seventh Saturday to move back atop the standings. Smith led the series for five weeks earlier in the year before Elliott shifted to the top, and remains the only Nationwide driver to finish every race in the top 10. Smith leads Elliott Sadler by five points, with Elliott now 28 back in third.

"The points race doesn't matter at all," Smith said. "Everybody talks about it, but it doesn't matter at all until we get to 10 (races) to go. We get to 10 to go, then we'll talk about it. Until then, it's really not relevant."

Smith speaks from experience -- he led the standings for 10 weeks early last season before ultimately finishing third in final points and watching Austin Dillon celebrate the championship. "If anyone knows how early it is," Smith said, "it's me after last year."

Elliott had run in the top 10 until about midway through the race, when he felt like his front splitter kept hitting the track harder and harder. After the race he wondered if a jack screw in the suspension had come loose, but he wasn't certain. His No. 9 team tried an adjustment on pit road, but eventually Elliott had to go to the garage for more extensive work. He returned to the track more than 20 laps down to the leader.

Elliott said he had fought the same problem in qualifying earlier in the day. "I don’t know exactly what it was, or why it broke, or how it broke, or when it started to break," he said. "We'll address it and try to not to make that mistake again, and go to Dover (next week) and see what happens."

Elliott had entered the day two points ahead of Smith and Sadler in the Nationwide standings. The son of newly elected NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott had led the points for five consecutive race weekends, ever since his first career victory April 4 at Texas -- the first of back-to-back triumphs in Fort Worth and in Darlington, where the 18-year-old became the youngest driver ever to record consecutive Nationwide wins, and the youngest ever to lead the standings on the circuit.

Saturday, though, brought his first finish of the season off the lead lap. "It's just part of racing, man," Elliott said. "You're going to have weekends like this, unfortunately. We've just got to go to Dover and put it behind us, and go and battle for a win up there. I'd be happy with that."

For Smith, the points lead proved a consolation of sorts -- he was originally scheduled to be wheels-up on an airplane at 6 a.m. Sunday, bound for his first visit to the Indianapolis 500. Instead he'll stay in Charlotte, where he'll be the standby in the Coca-Cola 600 for Jeff Gordon, who cut short one Sprint Cup practice Saturday and then skipped another due to a recurrence of back spasms. JR Motorsports is affiliated with Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports team.

"This sounds bad, but I'd much rather be here at the 600, and given the circumstances, I'll be ready if anything happens, if Jeff needs any help or anything like that," Smith said. "I want to make sure he's healthy. I hate getting opportunities like that, so it's a double-edged sword. You want to get in a car, especially a good car like that, but you don’t want to do it because of somebody else's troubles."

Smith has been in this spot before, filling in for Hendrick driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. for two races in 2012 while Earnhardt was recovering from a concussion. He said Gordon's team reached out to him before Nationwide qualifying Saturday, after which Smith went over to the Sprint Cup garage to sit in the No. 24 car to ensure everything fit.

"I’ll just prepare as if I'm racing," Smith said. "If I have to get in the car, then I'm prepared mentally. I'll go about my normal night, get to bed about the same time. I won't stay up all night playing video games or something stupid like that. Just go about it like I was getting ready for a normal race."

And as for the Indy 500? "Hopefully, I'll be racing on Sundays someday soon," said Smith, a former Sprint Cup race winner himself. "Maybe when I'm old and have gray hair, I'll go."

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