News & Media

Recent turn of events land Smith in Chase-quality car

October 11, 2012, Seth Livingstone, Special to NASCAR.COM,

CONCORD, N.C. -- Regan Smith says he doesn't feel any additional pressure in taking over behind the wheel of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s No. 88 Chevrolet.

Even so, he won't mind the fan support that comes with filling in for NASCAR's most popular driver.

"I just want to do these guys proud and run as good as we can with this car."


"I do know that Dale has a huge following. I'm glad to be on the good side of them for a couple weeks," Smith said.

The former Furniture Row Racing driver found about about 7 a.m. on Thursday that he'd get the chance to drive Chase-proven equipment, filling in this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

"There's pressure every time you sit in a race race and drive," Smith says. "It doesn't matter what car it is. Every driver in this garage feels the same pressure every week. I'm going to put the same pressure on myself this weekend that I did last week and as I did two years ago."

Last week, Smith still was driving the No. 78 Chevrolet for Furniture Row and posted his best finish of the season, a fifth at Talladega.

But Smith lost his job to Kurt Busch and had been scheduled to drive Busch's former ride, Phoenix Racing's No. 51, until Thursday when Earnhardt stepped out of his car due to a concussion suffered on last week's last-lap crash. That opened the door for Smith to move into Earnhardt's seat for the next two weeks.

"It's an exciting opportunity for me," Smith says. "I hate the circumstances around it. Obviously, Dale's safety and getting him healthy are the most important things right now. With that said, it's a great opportunity for me to hop in the race car.

"The last four weeks have been about as up-and-down as any four weeks in my life, between what was going on with the 78 car. As of [Wednesday], I was in South Carolina, getting fitted for the 51 car. Then I get a call this morning at 7 o'clock and ... by 7:30 I'm in my car heading over to the Hendrick shop."

Smith said he hadn't had a chance to speak with Earnhardt prior to Thursday's practice. Earnhardt says that's OK.

"Regan doesn't need any tutoring or anything like that," said Earnhardt, who indicated he would not be at the track Sunday for fear of becoming a distraction. "He's going to do a great job. I'm excited for his opportunity.

"He's a great guy and been a good friend of mine for a long time. Under the circumstances, I think this is really a neat opportunity for him. Steve [crew chief Letarte] and the guys will enjoy working with him."

Earnhardt's concussion effectively ends his quest for the Sprint Cup title. He exits the car 11th of 12 drivers in the Chase, 51 points behind points leader Brad Keselowski.

Rick Hendrick, owner of Earnhardt's car, said he called Phoenix Racing team owner James Finch about 10 p.m. Wednesday, requesting permission to use Smith as his driver on Saturday night. It was a logical move for Hendrick Motorsports, which has a technical alliance with Phoenix and designs on employing Smith next season.

"We've been talking about running him in the Nationwide car for a championship," Hendrick said. "He's a good friend of Dale's. Dale likes him, we're familiar with him. We knew he was going to be in James' car, so it just seemed to fit."

Letarte says Smith's relationship with another Chevrolet team and with Earnhardt helped ease the decision.

"Regan has a great attitude and seems to be a remarkable talent," Letarte said. "He's part of the Chevrolet family, which obviously helps when it comes to driving our car. The fact that Dale believes in him so much also made the decision much easier."

Smith, 29, has one career Sprint Cup victory on his resume, that coming last year at Darlington. His goal for the weekend?

"I just want to do these guys proud and run as good as we can with this car," he said. "We want to try to win the pole, try to win the race and try to be the fastest car every practice. That's not going to change. That's what these [No. 88] guys do every weekend."