Regan Smith now a Daytona winner

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Sliding race cars and spewing sparks had been the snapshot of their disappointments at Daytona International Speedway for Regan Smith and Ryan Pemberton.

Smith's bid for a first victory there had ended in an avalanche of metal after he attempted to block Brad Keselowski on the last lap of the Nationwide Series race last February, cuing a wreck that injured more than two dozen fans. It affected him personally and professionally for longer than it should have.

Pemberton's bid for a first Daytona 500 win in 2007 ended when his driver, Mark Martin, was beaten to the checkered flag by Kevin Harvick despite a massive accident occurring behind them. NASCAR rules seemingly would have frozen the field with Martin winning NASCAR's grandest prize. It didn't. He didn't, and neither did Pemberton.

Memories and outlooks changed for him and Smith on Saturday. Barely.

"Basically, I thought we had it won last year. That didn't happen," crew chief Pemberton said after his driver won the Drive4COPD 300. "Up until it went all the way across the line, I couldn't look.

"The last hour was pretty nerve-wracking. It's Daytona, one of those things. All these different scenarios, those things keep slipping through."

Nothing slipped through on Saturday because even with all the proper ingredients of mayhem collected, the pack of cars charging through the tri-oval kept its collective wits, and Smith beat Keselowski to the line by .013 seconds, the second-closest finish in the history of the series at Daytona.

Last year, Smith's bid to defend the lead had sent him across the path of the field, sparking an incident that sent Kyle Larson's car into the fence, sloughing a wheel and other parts and shards into the grandstands.

"It still doesn't feel real," said Smith, who won his fourth Nationwide race since 2012. "You know, last year was a tough pill to swallow. There were a lot of circumstances around it. You know, nobody felt worse than me on Sunday morning and Saturday night. We were fortunate that all turned out well with all the fans and everything."

Dale Earnhardt Jr., the co-owner of the JR Motorsports team for which Smith drives, told Smith at a dinner earlier this week that Smith had to forgive himself for the incident and move on.

"I think it hurt him deeply that the fans were involved in the accident," Earnhardt said. "I think that he personally and privately [bore] some responsibility for his involvement in the crash, just being in the crash, to have someone in the grandstands get hurt had to affect him tremendously."

And in doing so, Smith has thrust himself headlong into the points lead a season after holding the standings for 10 weeks, only to fade to third place. Now, Earnhardt said, Smith might be ready at age 30 to claim his first title in a top-three NASCAR series.

"I think it definitely helps to come close and lose 'em," Earnhardt said. "That's what they always tell you when you do lose 'em, is you got to lose a few before you can win one. But that doesn't apply to everybody. That's just something I think people tell you to make you feel better.

"He worries to death about his performance, where his career's headed, what he needs to do to go in the right direction."

The right direction was forward on Saturday, door to door with Keselowski on the last lap before making a move and making it stick. A race that began with a train wreck of a national anthem -- a hard-rock version by Madison Rising that caused a stir -- did not end with a car wreck, even though conditions were rife. It could become the metaphor for his season.

"As a driver, honestly, you can't let situations like that pop into your head," Smith said of worrying about a reprise of the 2013 accident. "You have to go out there and believe in your abilities, believe in what you're capable of doing on the racetrack, trust the competitors that are around that you're going to get back to the stripe and finish the race off.

"To say I haven't thought about it this week at all would be a complete lie. When I was out there actually racing, it was not in my mind at all. I was focused on what my job was, and that was to make sure that the 7 car got back to the stripe first."

Finally. For Smith and Pemberton, both.