News & Media

Engine failure ends Smith's first run in No. 88

October 13, 2012, David Caraviello,

CONCORD, N.C. -- One moment, he was being praised by his crew chief and his spotter for doing such a good job in Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s car. The next moment, smoke was emanating from the back of the No. 88 Chevrolet, and Regan Smith's first race as NASCAR's highest-profile substitute driver was coming to an abrupt and unexpected end.

Engine failure forced Smith into the garage after 61 laps of Saturday night's Sprint Cup event at Charlotte Motor Speedway, ending a strong run in which the Hendrick Motorsports fill-in raced from a poor qualifying spot into the top 10. Smith, who is subbing for Earnhardt for two races while NASCAR's most popular driver recovers from his second concussion in six weeks, will be back in the No. 88 again next weekend at Kansas Speedway.

"Whatever it was, it was catastrophic. That's how it goes sometimes. Usually when they go, you don't want them to. "


"I had a car that was capable of doing everything I needed it to do. Once we got track position, it was getting better, and I think it was going to continue to get better," Smith said in the garage area as crewmen looked over the disabled vehicle.

"We went a little too far with our first adjustment and needed one more stop to really get it tuned in all the way. But it's great equipment, great people working on this team ... and we're looking forward to next week. We've got three days to test when we get to Kansas and to prepare and get ready for what's coming there. I'm comfortable in these cars, and getting that first little bit of a race out of the way was important. So we'll go from there and try to run as strong as here."

Sprint Cup teams will test on the new pavement at Kansas on Wednesday and Thursday in advance of the race weekend. Smith drove for the Furniture Row Racing team until this week, when he was replaced by Kurt Busch. Smith was slated to debut at Charlotte in a Phoenix Racing car when No. 88 crew chief Steve Letarte called him early Thursday morning to inform him of Earnhardt's condition. Smith was chosen for the pinch-hit role partly because Rick Hendrick had been eyeing him for a potential Nationwide Series ride next year.

But Saturday night, Smith certainly looked like he belonged among the big boys. Smith qualified 26th, but he was among the fastest drivers in final practice and wasted no time getting to the front once the race began. On Lap 43, he cracked the top 10. "There you go, keep doing what you're doing," Letarte told him over the radio. "Great job."

Soon, though, smoke emerged from the back of the car, a tell-tale sign of engine failure. "I think it's terminal," Letarte told his driver over the radio. "You did a great, great job. You proved you could race with those guys. We'll talk this week and we'll go to Kansas," Letarte added later.

The failure was sudden, and Smith said it occurred with no warning. "It was definitely very quick," he said in the garage area. "Whatever it was, it was catastrophic. That's how it goes sometimes. Usually when they go, you don't want them to. That's just part of it."

The result was clearly a disappointment for Smith, getting his first shot in a championship-caliber car that qualified for the Chase this season. He raved about how he's been treated by Hendrick personnel. "This is hands-down, the classiest, best-prepared organization I've ever been around," he said. Smith also was buoyed by Earnhardt fans, who he said have embraced him in this substitute role.

"A lot of people in 88 shirts were pretty pumped up, and telling me to go get 'em, we're pulling for you, good job," he said. "Dale's got obviously the biggest fan base in the sport, and his fans have been great to me all week, and I certainly hope they continue to support me next week, and we'll get this thing up front. We had it up front, we just didn't have it quite as far forward as we wanted to get."