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Smith shares struggles of filling in for Stewart

August 10, 2014, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com

The NNS veteran had not been in a Sprint Cup car in a year and a half

RELATED: Complete coverage of Tony Stewart incident

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- Regan Smith had been back home in North Carolina for less than 12 hours when his phone rang again. Seemingly as soon as he had left Watkins Glen International, he was headed back. 

The Sunday morning chain of events that saw Tony Stewart step aside from his Stewart-Haas Racing No. 14 Chevrolet made Smith a last-minute stand-in in the Cheez-It 355 at The Glen. The NASCAR Nationwide Series regular had an adventurous day before he ever set foot back at the race track, and that theme continued for much of the 90-lap race in the team's 37th-place finish.

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By the time the early morning announcement had been made that Stewart had decided to sit out the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race out of respect to Kevin Ward Jr., the 20-year-old sprint car driver who was killed in a Saturday night incident with Stewart at a New York dirt track, Smith was already en route. 

"I saw it on social media (last night) probably like everybody else did," said Smith, who finished 17th in Saturday's Nationwide Series event. "Actually before I went to bed last night, I saw it on FOX Sports or something like that. I didn't know much about it at the time. I woke up this morning, obviously and heard more about it. I think it was 8:30, I got a call from my crew chief, Ryan (Pemberton), and said to get to the shop as quick as I could, so I did."

Smith's helicopter landed at 11:55 a.m. ET in the additional section of the track known as "The Boot" used in other forms of motorsports and unloaded with his helmet and his own seat moldings. The No. 14 crew went to work at getting Smith comfortable in the car, hastily fitting the seat and helmet connections before the 1:20 p.m. ET green flag.

Starting at the rear of the 43-car field because of the driver change was challenge enough, but finding the comfort level remained at a premium especially in the early stages. 

"It's a race car," Smith said. "It's my job to be able to drive a race car, and it took me a little longer to get acclimated than I hoped it would, and I felt like at the end there, we were finally starting to make some progress and I was able to get consistent with the car and understood the car a little better and what it was doing. These guys build fast race cars at Stewart-Haas, and I was thankful to get to get in one, but definitely not under the circumstances." 

Smith, who drove full-time in NASCAR's top series for four seasons with parts of three others, last drove a Sprint Cup car in spring 2013 for the former James Finch-owned Phoenix Racing group. Since then, rules that ended restrictions on ride-height rules before the season threw Smith another curve. 

"Yeah, I haven't been in a Cup car in a year and a half in an actual race," Smith said, "so these things are a lot different now than they were a year and a half ago, and there's been a lot of changes to them."

Smith moved up consistently from his starting spot into the middle of the pack by the race's midway point, thanks in part to pit strategy and in other aspects to his familiarity with the 2.45-mile course. But the 172nd start of his Sprint Cup career came to an early end in the next-to-last caution period, when Jimmie Johnson's spinning No. 48 collected Smith's car. He initially tried to limp away from the crash, but the damage was race-ending. 

Smith's thoughtful perspective after the travel-heavy day outweighed the number in the results column.

"My day really doesn't matter right now," Smith said. "There are a lot of people more important than me at the moment, so we're thinking about all those people and our prayers are with them."

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