NASCAR: Smith wins from way out West
DARLINGTON, S.C.ó Regan Smith says his Southern 500 victory last week proves more than his skill as a Sprint Cup driver. It shows a tiny team from way out West can succeed alongside NASCARís big boys.
Smith canít count how often he heard he was banging his head against the wall ó and ruining his career ó with Furniture Row Racing of Denver, the only Sprint Cup team west of the Mississippi River.
ěEverybody said, ëFor how long? You canít race outside of Charlotte, the 20-mile radius where all the teams are. You canít do it,íî Smith said. ěWeíve been doing it every week.î
At Darlington Raceway, Smithís team did it better than everyone else. He moved up front with seven laps left when he chose to stay out on old tires instead of pitting for fresh ones during a caution, then outran Sprint Cup points leader Carl Edwards in a green-white-checkered finish for his first career victory.
Smith was a rookie driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 2008 when he beat Tony Stewart at Talladega in the fall. NASCAR, though, penalized Smith for driving below the yellow line and gave the win to Stewart. After the season, Smith was out of work despite being named the seriesí rookie of the year and landed with Furniture Row and owner Barney Visser.
ěI think itís obvious now the best thing that happened to me was the end of the ë08 season (when) I didnít have a ride,î Smith said.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. says Furniture Row has been underappeciated for the program it has built.
ěYeah, they used some strategy to win (Darlington), but they still had a good enough race car to do it,î Earnhardt said.
Smith found a home at the one-car shop that believed it could succeed nearly 1,600 miles from NASCARís North Carolina hub.
ěFor our organization, obviously (the win) means everything,î team manager Joe Garone said. ěWeíve been six years building this team and literally started from scratch.î
Itís an unusual set up. Thereís a 35,000-square-foot garage in Denver thatís home to 64 employees. Thereís a ěsatelliteî set up in North Carolina ó itís the garage of spotter Clayton Hughes ó where a Furniture Row hauler picks up chassis, engines or whatever is needed for the Colorado shop. The cars are assembled in Denver, Garone said.
Even a one-car NASCAR team canít do it alone in the age of powerhouse shops such as Hendrick Motorsports, Roush-Fenway Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing. Garone said the team relies on Stewart-Haas Racing for help in the pits, Richard Childress Racing for its chassis, and Earnhardt-Childress Racing Engines for its power.
ěIt is part of the structure for how the little guy does business in Cup,î Garone said. ěYou need partners. You need to have those relationships not just in place, but they have to be good relationships.î
Smith wasnít NASCARís first surprise winner this season ó 20-year-old Trevor Bayne swiped the Daytona 500. But Bayne drove for the Wood Brothers, a team draped in nearly 50 years of NASCAR tradition even if it has struggled in recent seasons.
Smith and Furniture Row are true outsiders.
ěI can tell you a lot of people, and I canít say I wasnít with them when Barney Visser wanted it run out of Colorado, said that we might just be crazy,î said Garone, who had worked for star driver Bill Elliott and with NASCAR before joining Furniture Row.
For Smith, it has been a perfect fit. The 27-year-old recalled his time sending out proposals during the day and running in the USAR Pro Cup series at night, doing anything to get noticed and move to the next level.
There are plenty of people in the Sprint Cup garage, Smith says, who dodged dozens of his calls. ěI guess the more doors get slammed in your face, the thicker your skin is,î he said.
Smith��s self-doubt didnít stop once he joined Furniture Row. He didnít have a top-10 finish in 54 races in 2009 and 2010. Things began to improve this season with a seventh-place finish at the Daytona 500. Smith gained momentum in the two events leading up to Darlington by running 15th at Talladega and 17th at Richmond, his best finishes since the season opener.
Smith says the breakthrough win has changed his goals, as well as those of the team. Heís in the NASCAR Sprint Cup All-Star race at Charlotte in two weeks. With another win, he might even find himself in line to make the Chase for the Championship as a wild-card entry if he can get himself up into the top 20. Heís currently 27th.
ěI couldnít think of a better way to do it with the things Iíve been through with a team out of Colorado,î Smith said. ěIím pretty close to having a house bought out there. Solidifies my roots out there a little more.î
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