Stewart downplays role played in Smith's first win
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Consider it the ultimate irony.
In October of 2008, when Regan Smith thought he had recorded the first Sprint Cup victory of his career at Talladega, it was Tony Stewart who helped take it away from him. Last Saturday night, when Smith finally did capture that elusive first win more than two years and eight months later, Stewart had a hand in helping him do it.
Mostly overlooked in the aftermath of Smith's dramatic victory in the Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington was the fact that Smith and his No. 78 Chevrolet team accomplished the unlikely trip to Victory Lane with assistance from a pit crew on loan from Stewart-Haas Racing. They have been pitting Smith's car for Furniture Row Racing all season.
Stewart downplayed the role the SHR pit crew had in Smith's big win and said he was ecstatic to see Smith finally reach Victory Lane -- which he did after declining to make a final pit stop in a perfectly-timed effort to gain track position when Carl Edwards, then the race leader, and most others opted to pit and take on fresh tires late in the race.
"I think Regan did it on his own at the end," Stewart said. "Our guys did a great job all night long, but I think you've really got a place it in Regan's hands. He did a great job. To finish it off the way that he did was classy -- and that was hard to do.
"To have that pressure on you going after your first win, and on top of that to have 20 more laps on your tires than all the other guys around you, that's not the ideal scenario. What he did to win his first race was very, very hard to do. But he made the best of his opportunity."
Smith thought he had made the best of his opportunity in the fall of '08 at Talladega, when he beat Stewart to the finish line. But NASCAR ruled that Smith advanced his position by dipping below the yellow line that signals out of bounds at that track, and Stewart was ruled the victor.
It would be 89 more Sprint Cup races over parts of four seasons before Smith finally earned the win that should help ease, if not entirely erase, the pain of the Talladega setback. Stewart helped make it happen by agreeing to loan out the pit crew to Smith's team prior to the 2011 season -- with the caveat that at any time he can pull one of Smith's pit-crew members from the No. 78 car to one of the other SHR cars, including the No. 14 Chevy he drives himself and the No. 39 driven by Ryan Newman.
"Basically the moral of the story is that's the third pit crew that we have," Stewart said. "If something happens, we always wanted to have other guys we could call on. It's no different than a football or baseball or basketball team where you've got guys on the bench who can come in and substitute. The best thing for these guys is to be active every week and doing what they're doing.
"So there was an arrangement made with Furniture Row Racing where those guys pit the 78 car each week. It's good for us, knowing we've got a group of guys getting experience and staying sharp. And of our three teams, they actually were the second-best pit crew for us over the [Darlington] weekend. It makes you feel good as an organization, knowing that we've got three really good pit crews right now. If we have an injury in one spot, we have that third team to pull from."
Told Smith may now have something to say about that before any switch is made, Stewart laughed heartily and added: "He may be the third guy we want to pull and keep for ourselves.
"He did an awesome job. We've had two races this year that have been storybook endings for guys [including Trevor Bayne's upset win in the season-opening Daytona 500]. It's neat to see someone like Regan get to Victory lane. You look at the scenario and you look at that team being based in [Denver] Colorado, and it's amazing to see what they've accomplished in a sport really where it's very regionalized as far as where everyone else is based out of. But he's pushed and pushed and pushed, and he's getting the results now."
Even Rick Hendrick, whose Hendrick Motorsports is at the opposite end of the ownership spectrum from Furniture Row Racing's single-team operation, has taken notice.
"That was unbelievable. Those guys worked hard and he's a heck of a driver," Hendrick said of Smith and the No. 78 team. "Those guys deserved to have an opportunity to win, and I just think that speaks volumes to how competitive these cars are. He drove the wheels off that thing -- because I would have bet you everything you had that there was no way you could take old tires and stay in front of Carl [Edwards] and those guys at the end at Darlington. But he did it, and he drove the wheels off it.
"I think it's good for the sport. I know it's good for the sport. ... That shows a lot of independent [owners] what they can do."
Especially, Hendrick didn't need to add, with a little assistance from non-independent owners willing to help out.