Regan Smith arrived at Talladega Superspeedway last weekend hoping to "hold serve," he said.
He wanted to remain close to then-Nationwide Series points leader Sam Hornish Jr., avoid the inevitable mass wrecks that are so much a part of the process and pomp of restrictor-plate racing, and move on to Darlington, his favorite track.
With a bold sweeping move to take the lead in the final stretch -- just before collisions erupted behind him -- Smith did much better. His first win of the season erased the one-point deficit to Hornish and put Smith ahead by 27 heading into a portion of the schedule he's been anticipating for weeks.
In the process, he put a JR Motorsports driver atop the standings for the first time in the organization's history.
For Smith, Talladega and Darlington keep intertwining.
"We got through the stretch of the year that I don't particularly consider one of my strong suits or one of my favorites, and that was Richmond, a couple of the early tracks we went to," Smith said. "We get to Talladega and it's kind of a wild card. It can go either way on points, but if you can just hold serve out of there ... now we're in a stretch I really enjoy."
Smith calls Darlington, Charlotte -- where he has top-10 finishes in both Cup and Nationwide -- and Dover his favorite three tracks, and they are next up on the schedule, in that order. He deems Iowa -- the race after Dover -- "a little bit of an unknown" because the .875-mile venue joined the schedule after he had focused on full-time Sprint Cup racing.
"The success doesn't hurt," he said of his affinity for Darlington. "That's first and foremost. But in all seriousness, the first time I ever went there, I felt good at the place. I never used to be a guy who liked running up against the wall, but that was one of the first tracks I ever went to where I like being up on the wall.
"Obviously, you have that option, but I had a comfort level along the wall there. And the style of racing, it's more of a calculated-type racing in my opinion, and it's more of a thinking-type racing. I just enjoy that style of racing."
Smith, then driving for Furniture Row Racing, held off Carl Edwards on old tires during a green-white-checkered finish to win his only Sprint Cup race there in May 2011.
He thought he'd made his breakthrough in 2008 at Talladega, but NASCAR ruled he had illegally advanced his position below the yellow line -- although official winner Tony Stewart admitted he blocked him there -- but said after the Darlington win that he would trade innumerable Talladega victories for a Southern 500.
"I enjoy having to work out the track, having to work out your tires, and things like that, as much as you do the other cars out there, and even though the tires aren't quite as much of a worry now as they used to be, every time we go [to Darlington], it's becoming increasingly more important to take care of them and be conscious of," Smith said. "It's getting back to where it was 10 years ago when it was like a cheese grater. The style of racing and the mentality it takes to run there is something I really enjoy."
Smith, like former Sprint Cup drivers Elliott Sadler and Hornish, took a full-time ride in the Nationwide series to re-establish himself as a championship contender. He won his first race in NASCAR's second-tier series in the 2012 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. And after starting this season with 14th and 11th-place finishes -- he was wrecked attempting to block Brad Keselowski for the lead at Daytona -- Smith has a win, three top-5s and six top-10s in the ensuing six starts.
While racing at Talladega often entails crafting strategy that can be undone by the decisions of draft partners (which leads either to a quantum drop in the running order or an outlandish shredding of metal), Darlington requires a more systematic approach, Smith said.
And although much of the mystique of the 1.36-mile egg-shaped oval entails the management of the so-called "Darlington stripe" acquired by abrading the backstretch wall, keeping a race car pristine is part of that approach, he said.
"The year we won there, I started the race off and literally had this conversation on the grid before the race started with [crew chief] Pete [Rondeau], at the time and I said, 'Man I'm going to run 90 percent all night,' " Smith recalled. "I said, 'My only goal tonight is I don't want to hit the wall at all.'
"I raced completely different than even I've ever raced before. I've always raced smart before, but I took it to a whole other level and when it came down to the end of the race, I think part of where our speed came from is our car was 100 percent intact. The right side had all the structure, all the integrity to it and it had all the side force you need to be able to race around a place like that. I was able to dig deep and get a little more out of the car on old tires, so it's a whole different thought process at that place. You really have to think the whole time."