News & Media

Smith pleased, but laments what could have been

February 20, 2011, Joe Menzer,

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Scores a career-best seventh, but was in position to win before late crash

One of NASCAR's best-kept secrets may be no longer.

Regan Smith may stand just 5-foot-9 and weigh barely 160 pounds. And he may work for a small, independent, single-car Sprint Cup team that operates out of sight, out of mind much of the time in Denver, Colo., far away from where most of NASCAR's other shops are located in the heart of the Southeast.

"We wrecked probably four times in that race and still finished seventh. Any time that happens, you've got to be happy with the finish. But I have to admit, I was thinking about having a shot to win the race. "


But Smith and Furniture Row Racing showed plenty of power during Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway, including throughout Sunday's 53rd running of the Daytona 500. Smith actually led the race with less than five laps to go in the scheduled 200-lap event and was running third when his No. 78 Chevrolet got inadvertently punted from behind by Kurt Busch, whose No. 22 Dodge first took a hit in his own rear end from the No. 14 Chevrolet of Tony Stewart.

So just when it looked as if Smith might have a real chance to win NASCAR's biggest race, he did a 360-degree spin and was sent off into the infield grass. It jeopardized nearly an entire race's worth of fine work, as Smith had been running in the lead pack virtually all day.

"It was just one of those things where we got bottled up there. The No. 22 [of Busch] was behind us -- and the No. 14 [of Stewart] got the No. 22, which turned us," said Pete Rondeau, crew chief of Smith's car. "I'm glad we just slid across the grass and didn't do any damage, so it worked out good for us. We were able to get the right side somewhat repaired, get all the stuff off the fenders, calm him down and get him back going again."

Smith was angry and frustrated, but quickly made a wise choice thanks to the urging of Rondeau. The driver was determined not to let the mishap ruin his day -- and rallied furiously to come back and finish seventh. It was the best finish of Smith's career, his first career top-10, and the first top-10 in the relatively brief six-year history of Furniture Row Racing.

Smith dropped back to 14th after surviving his spin, so he had some work to do to get back to seventh before the finish, which came on the second of two green-white-checkered attempts.

"I think the big picture we had to look at was that once we got taken out, what was the best that we could do? So I had to put that behind me pretty quick," Smith said. "I just told myself, 'All right, we can still salvage something here. It can be woe is me after the race' -- which is what I'm doing right now. But while the race is going on, I have a job to do and a responsibility to my guys to compose myself and get us the best finish I can get."

Mark McCardle, managing director of competition for Furniture Row Racing, lauded Smith's composure. But he said the staying power their No. 78 Chevy displayed not only throughout Sunday's race but throughout all of Speedweeks was no surprise to those within the close-knit team.

McCardle came on board at Furniture Row prior to the 2010 season, but previously has served as vice president and managing director of competition for Richard Petty Motorsports and also as head of the engine department for what was then Evernham Motorsports. Earlier in his career, he was more involved in IndyCar Racing and built the engines for three cars that won the Indianapolis 500.

"These guys do all the work, man. All I do is give them a little bit of direction of what I think we should do, and they execute it beautifully," McCardle said. "We're blessed with a really, really good little team that's happy, got a great chemistry, no politics, no drama.

"You know, we're kind of out there on an island -- unified in one way in that so many of us were kicked to the curb in North Carolina at one point or another. I think I said this to someone else a while back: we're the John Madden Oakland Raiders. We're the guys no one wanted, and we're going to come back and kick your butts."

Rondeau is part of the club, having previously served as director of research and development for Richard Petty Motorsports. Joe Garone, general manager of Furniture Row, is a former director of competition for Michael Waltrip Racing and once was in charge of getting NASCAR Research and Development Center up and running in Concord, N.C. Smith was the Cup rookie of the year in 2008, but couldn't find a full-time ride a year later before landing with Furniture Row.

"It's a great deal," Rondeau said of working at Furniture Row. "Barney [Visser] is a great owner. We've got Mark and Joe [Garone] up top there, giving us everything we need. We have a bunch of racers here, and this is what we want to do."

Both McCardle and Rondeau credited Smith for having the skill to run near the front for 500 miles at speeds sometimes topping 200 mph -- and for having the composure to secure the seventh-place finish after the late mishap.

"Regan has been maturing week by week, race by race, as a Cup driver," McCardle said. "I think we've had up to now the best-kept secret in the garage area with him. Obviously after [Sunday] I think people know who Regan Smith is and what he can do. We're awful proud of the young man, and he's a fine young man to work with. And I think we're still finding out what his possibilities are as a racing driver. He keeps getting better.

"All Speedweeks, he's been smart. He picked up on this style of driving and this style of drafting quickly. He's really giving us the kind of start to this season that we promised ourselves."

Rondeau admitted he was worried that Smith might lose his head after the late accident -- which came shortly after Smith had led Laps 194 and 195 as well as part of 196.

"Regan showed great poise there," Rondeau said. "Last year about this time, he would have been ranting and raving. He calmed himself down in a hurry, so that was a good thing."

Perhaps it helped that earlier in the race, Smith had to endure more than his share of some bumping and banging at nearly 200 mph.

"We wrecked probably four times in that race and still finished seventh," Smith said. "Any time that happens, you've got to be happy with the finish.

"But I have to admit, I was thinking about having a shot to win the race. I wasn't really worried about anything behind me. I was just thinking ahead to how I was going to block Kurt if we came to the stripe like that."

McCardle said the strong run was something for the team to build on.

"For Barney and his family, who have sunk heart and soul into this race team, it's justification and vindication," McCardle said. "We actually wound up with the kind of run that is the sort of thing we've been hoping for and looking for. I think we'll do more and more of that. It's a building process. We're continuing to get stronger, and I only look for that to continue."

Rondeau and Smith said they feel exactly the same way, and they don't care if everyone knows it now. The secret is out about the little team from out West that could -- and did -- in Sunday's Daytona 500.

"It's been a great Speedweeks. I don't mind flying under the radar. I think that's a good little place for us right now," Rondeau said. "We seemed to hit our stride here when we were supposed to. We didn't quite get the end result that we were looking for -- but coming out of here, if you can't win the Daytona 500, if you can come out of here with a top-10, that's usually a pretty good springboard to a good first part of the season."

Smith added that he is very fond of McCardle's comparison of Furniture Row Racing to the National Football League's old Oakland Raiders.

"I love that analogy," Smith said. "I think Mark said it best: every guy on this team, there isn't anything I wouldn't do for every single guy who works on these cars. I know they feel that way about me -- and when you get something like that, it's a good thing.

"It makes coming to the race track enjoyable. We all want to win. But we all want to do it the right way, and together. Who knows how far we can go this year? I think we're going to have a great year. Maybe we'll finish 25th in points, maybe we'll finish fifth. You never know. But at this point, what I do know is we're all going to work our asses off to get everything we can out of that race car every single time we get on the track."