Regan Smith's crazy week gets crazier

October, 11, 2012

CONCORD, N.C. -- What's it like to step into the seat of NASCAR's most popular driver?

Regan Smith is about to find out.

Smith was picked on Thursday to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is out for at least the next two races to recover from multiple concussions suffered at an Aug. 29 test at Kansas Speedway and last Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.

It won't turn into a job at Hendrick Motorsports, but perhaps it could turn into a job for Earnhardt's Nationwide Series team co-owned by Rick Hendrick. They're looking for a driver who could help take JR Motorsports back to Victory Lane, and Hendrick said they'd talked "about running a Nationwide car for a championship."

"He's a good driver, and again, Dale likes him, and we're familiar with him," Hendrick said.

Or maybe this will convince another Sprint Cup team owner to give Smith a job after seeing the confidence Earnhardt and Hendrick put in him. Hendrick does supply cars for Phoenix Racing, which is looking for a driver.

Or maybe Smith could run for JRM and Phoenix.

Regardless, it has been a crazy week for Smith. He wrapped up his tenure at Furniture Row Racing with a season-best fifth-place finish at Talladega because he survived the 25-car crash on the final lap that put Earnhardt in this position.

He then was selected to replace Kurt Busch, who took his seat at Furniture Row, at Phoenix Racing for at least this weekend's race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

When Earnhardt wasn't medically cleared to drive the next two weeks, Smith moved to a car that is 11th in points after getting a 7 a.m. text message from crew chief Steve Letarte.

Next thing you know Smith will be treated like NASCAR's most popular driver.

"I wouldn't expect that," Smith said with a smile. "I do know that Dale has a huge following. The Junior Nation is a big group of people. I have seen the good side of them before. I've seen the bad side of them. I'm glad to be on their good side for a couple of weeks, anyway."

Smith may not be the most popular, but he is a good guy and deserves this chance. He had his ride at Dale Earnhardt Inc. ripped from him after his rookie-of-the-year season in 2008 due to lack of sponsorship.

He had a win at Talladega ripped from him in the fall of 2008 because he had to go below the sacred yellow line to prevent crashing himself and winner Tony Stewart.

He had his ride at Furniture Row ripped from him because ownership thought it could do better with Busch.

"It is certainly a good opportunity," Smith said. "I am very fortunate that I am the guy they chose to call. I really appreciate that. It is going to be the best car I have sat in, yes, there is no denying that.

"I just want to go out and make the most of it. Run all 500 miles and see where we are at when it is all said and done."

Don't be surprised if it leads to something good.

David Newton | email

ESPN Staff Writer



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