Looking to regain points lead, Smith is hoping to continue improvement at road course
Yet even with a typical gray sky looming over western New York, soaking the surface of The Glen, Regan Smith loves this place. Years ago, he sat in the grandstands here between turns 10 and 11, watching drivers whose shoes he would fill years later. He’s ready to race at his home track, in front of family and friends, trying to charge back into the Nationwide Series points lead.
“I look forward to coming here; this is obviously my home race track, so it’s a big deal for me to come back to it,” Smith said ahead of practice for the Zippo 200. “I wish it was an oval as a home race track because… road courses aren’t necessarily my strong point. But with that said, if there is a road course that I like and I’m comfortable at, it is The Glen.”
In last year’s Sprint Cup Series race, Smith took his best series finish at the track, passing the checkered flag in ninth. In each of his four Cup appearances, Smith has steadily improved, starting with 37th in 2007 and moving up to34th in 2010 and 23rd in 2011 before his career high in 2012. His two Nationwide appearances, in 2005 and 2006, gave him results of 19th and 23rd, respectively.
To get the points lead back, Smith will have to emulate that trend once more. He lost the points lead after a 13th-place finish three weeks ago at Chicagoland Speedway, and hasn’t been in the top ten in either of the two following races. That ninth-place finish in the Cup Series, though, has given Smith belief that he can do even better.
"I’ve got a lot of laps around here and felt like last year with the Cup car, I really started to figure the place out, and that gives me a lot of confidence coming back in the Nationwide car — the car that we’ve got, the people that we’ve got,” Smith said.
Another boost of confidence came to Smith this week, as he is speculated to be one of the drivers under consideration to replace Tony Stewart in his No. 14 Chevrolet. Even with the potential Cup ride for the next few races, Smith knows his Nationwide team will remain just as much a priority.
“The obvious challenges (of driving the No. 14) would be the simple fact that you have a Cup program that’s going to be able to contend for the owner’s championship, possibly in the Chase if things work out well for it, and you’ve got a Nationwide program and team — which is my team — that’s contending for a championship as well. So you’ve got those two things that you’ve got to find the balance of, and make sure that both teams are getting 100% of your focus, and commitment at those times.”
This weekend, Smith’s commitment is to getting himself and his team back in the points lead after falling on some frustrating times.
“We’ve had a rough five or six weeks for our team, not performance-wise but just luck or little things happening. Last week, I thought we had one of our stronger cars of the year… we were in position to really do well and had a bad pit stop towards the end of the race that put us in the middle of the pack on two tires, and it was a tough situation to overcome. So, (I’m) ready to get all that behind us and start gaining back on first again.”
Some of that bad luck hit the No. 7 TaxSlayer.com Chevrolet in the season’s first road course in Elkhart, Wisc., at Road America, where the then-points leader was sent spinning after Parker Kligerman and Owen Kelly made contact. The wreck gave Smith his worst finish of the season — 32nd — and cut his points lead from 58 points to 28.
Smith’s third-place leaderboard spot in the sole Nationwide Series practice may be the first step towards undoing the trend of poor circumstances that finally lost his team the points lead. Ahead of the Zippo 200, Smith looks to continue improving on his performances at The Glen — and he’s got an eye on every driver from current points leader Austin Dillon on down.
"My mentality is we’re coming here to gain points on all of our competitors,” Smith said. “When I say that road racing isn’t necessarily my forte, that doesn’t mean I’m not 100% confident when I get out there.”
With so many family and friends cheering him on from the grandstand, it will also be a reminder of the little boy sitting in the grandstands, watching “larger-than-life” drivers maneuver the turns of The Glen.
“Anytime you get to come to your home track and race at a place you grew up watching as a kid and being around as a kid, you get that extra level of excitement,” he said.