Regan Smith has about seen it all during his first season and a half in the Sprint Cup Series. But despite seeing his team fold up in 2007 and working with a fourth different crew chief so far in his young Cup career, Smith is still battling hard with rookie rival Sam Hornish Jr. for the 2008 Rookie of the Year Award.
The driver of the No. 01 Chevrolet took time out of his schedule at Pocono to speak to our Tony Lumbis about his season to date, his new crew chief, the influence of mentor Mark Martin, and his experience racing north of the border in our latest edition of Beyond the Cockpit.
Tony Lumbis, Frontstretch: You are entering your second race with new crew chief Dan Stillman. How has the transition been working out so far? What types of challenges do a new driver and crew chief combination face at this early stage?
Regan Smith: Well, so far it’s working out really good. Dan has been doing a good job on the box both in the race and in practice. For two weeks in a row, we’ve had top-20 racecars, so we’re happy about that. That’s a drastic improvement over where we were at the start of the season. That’s our goal; we want to get the top 20s consistently and then the top 15s consistently. I’m just excited to be working with him. He’s a young guy and on kind of the same wavelength that I am. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.
Lumbis: Does his style differ a lot from Doug Richert or Ryan Pemberton’s last year?
Smith: Everybody has his own style. That’s not to say that anyone’s style is good, bad, or indifferent. Doug Richert is a great crew chief and for whatever reason, things weren’t clicking. That doesn’t mean he’s not going to go win races with the next team that he’s at. For me, though, Dan’s personality and demeanor is more along the same wavelength as mine, and I like what I’m hearing on the radio from him. Sometimes, you just get that chemistry; and sometimes, it takes time to get it. I think that hopefully we’ll have it from the start.
Lumbis: A lot of outsiders may look at your season to date, see that you are currently 33rd in driver points, and come to the conclusion that the season has been a disappointment. How do you personally rate your season overall?
Smith: These past few weeks, the team is starting to step up our performance in race stuff. We’re getting a lot better. The first eight or nine races, I was extremely disappointed. We were running good [but couldn’t seem] to get anything clicking.[But] the last few weeks, we’re starting to get the ball rolling. We’re having better practices. We’re feeling better about the cars after practice. I can come in and say “that’s all me.” I know when it’s me and when I need to just work on the racetrack. For example, I didn’t get a chance to test as much as the other guys up at Pocono, so I’m still figuring out marks and points and stuff like that.
So, the first eight or nine races it was really disappointing, but I’d say the last few weeks I’ve been really pleased with the direction things are going. We’re going in the right direction and closing in on some of the cars in front of us.
Lumbis: This is the first time that you’ve been to Pocono. Can you compare this place to anything you’ve ever seen before?
Smith: No, not at all. Shape-wise, Nazareth, but you’re going probably 100 mph quicker [here]. The dogleg at Nazareth, you can go wide open through and there is a lot of elevation change. This place is pretty flat for the most part, and no elevation change – it’s just a different beast.
Lumbis: What was the best piece of advice Martin gave you when you were splitting a ride with him last year?
Smith: Mark has given me a lot of advice. I can’t say there is just one thing. Going through the merger at Ginn, I would turn to him for advice on how to handle some situations and he was there to help me out. There were some things that were pretty tough on me for a while, and he was the guy I could turn to and say “Hey, what do I do?” or “How does this work out?” or “You’ve been around this stuff forever, what do you think?” Even as recently as today, I went over looking for him to ask him a question about the racetrack. He was already gone, because they’re pretty quick, but I found Martin Truex Jr. instead right next to him. That’s the good thing about having veteran teammates and guys who have been doing this for awhile.
I got to drive Truex’s car for about 30 laps in the test here. They were nice enough to let me hop in his car and at least see the place and get acclimated with it. Paul Menard and I are good friends, and I feel like I can ask him anything that I need to. It’s good to have teammates that you can feel comfortable going to about stuff, and I like that a lot.
Lumbis: The 2007 season was one of great transition for you. You lost the Nationwide ride due to financial reasons, you became the driver of the No. 14 car and had it shut down before even getting in the seat, then you had the DEI merger and had Aric Almirola take over the No. 01. How do you as a driver stay focused through all of that?
Smith: This sport is a sport of the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, and it’s always been that way. You have to have good people looking after you and people you can go to when you’re in a tough situation. Not that any of that stuff [last year] was a problem. It was business; that’s how it goes. It was just a little more of a high-profile deal since it was in the middle of the season. You just focus on what you need to do on the racetrack, and that’s all you can do.
Lumbis: You have experience running in the Canadian Grand National series, and won the championship in 1998. Given that experience and the fact that you grew up in upstate New York, not far from the border, do you feel that NASCAR can be successful in Canada?
Smith: I definitely think NASCAR can be successful in Canada. There’s as many racing fans in Canada as there are anywhere in the world. The racing up there is awesome. I even went to a couple CASCAR races when I was younger just to watch and hang out. They’ll pack the stands at a half-mile racetrack for a CASCAR race, and everyone just goes nuts. I ran last year up in Nova Scotia and hell, I didn’t even know where Nova Scotia was until I was going up there to race. I looked on a map and thought “wow, there’s probably nobody going to be there.” When we got there, there were probably 10,000 people in the stands. It was an incredible show. We’re going to go back there and do it again this year at Riverside Speedway, and I’m looking forward to that. So, there’s no reason why it’s not going be successful up there.
Lumbis: How did you keep yourself busy growing up during the long winter months that come with living just outside of Syracuse?
Smith: I moved to North Carolina (laughs). You just have to make the most of the summer months. When I was really young, we would race as much as we could. I’d be someplace, sometimes twice a week racing go-karts or microds. There were always tracks you could go to. We’d run our normal weekly show on Thursday nights and then travel someplace else for the weekends with the microds. The thing about the north is that you might have eight months of winter – but that’s eight months everyone has to work on their stuff to make them real competitive.