Regan Smith is making the most of his second chance. After getting the axe by Dale Earnhardt Inc. just days after winning Rookie of the Year, Smith signed on with small-time Furniture Row Racing for a limited schedule in 2009. Both driver and team meshed immediately, and there would be no sophomore slump for this Cato, N.Y. native, collecting a handful of top-15 finishes that built a foundation for future success.
Now, Furniture Row has stepped back up to the plate for 2010, moving back into full-time competition while giving Smith the keys to their future. But how quickly can the team put itself in position for goals like top-five finishes, making the Chase, and even that long-shot trip to victory lane? Our Tom Bowles sat down with the twentysomething prodigy at Martinsville to discuss that timetable of progress. Plus, Smith takes a look at how the new spoiler will affect the racing, the biggest challenge of being on a single-car team, and… a thong?
You’ll just have to read to find out.
Tom Bowles, Frontstretch: How would you assess your season so far?
Regan Smith: It’s been decent. We’ve had some ups and downs. Some of them are self-created; others haven’t been self-created. Blown tires, stuff like that. We can’t control some of that. You throw that stuff out, and we’d be sitting decent in points right now.
I felt like California and Vegas were both really good races for us. Daytona was a good race. Atlanta was our best finish but one of our worst races. And Bristol was the product of a blown tire, so we can’t evaluate how the whole weekend went based on that.
As a whole, we made some gains from last year. But we need to continue to keep making gains.
Bowles: You guys made a lot of changes this past offseason. What do you think is the most important one to get you guys running better?
Smith: There’s been a lot. I think overall the biggest change has been we’ve brought a lot of new people in. And we’ve got a lot more structure to the organization. We’re a lot more organized as a company and as a race team right now than we were last year at this point.
We’ve got engineers. We’ve got people that know how to do that stuff working for us now. In the past, maybe we were sitting here scratching our heads trying to figure this stuff out. But now, we got people that know how to punch stuff into the sim. We’ve got sim programs that we’re working with, and we’re not going in quite as blind into race day as we would have been going into last year.
It’s something that we worked on getting taken care of in the offseason, getting all those programs implemented. So I don’t think you can point one big thing out. I would say the biggest thing for me personally is I’ve got somebody different in my ear talking to me on the radio. And Ryan (Coniam, crew chief)’s done a really good job with calling the races, and it seems like we’re always in the right position in the right time.
That’s a huge deal when it comes to capitalizing at the end of races.
Bowles: So the chemistry is going well so far?
Smith: Yeah, the chemistry’s been good. It’s like any relationship. There’s times where you want to rip their head off. There’s times where they want to rip your head off. So it goes both ways.
Bowles: You talked about the simulation. How important has it been to have that type of stuff?
I don’t know how it’s developed, personally. I don’t know what they do to come up with it, or to come up with the numbers or stuff like that. But the garage has advanced from the point where seven-post shakers were the thing everybody had to have. Now, we’re at a point where everything on the seven-post you can do on the sim, and there’s not as much of a need to run the car on a seven-post. They can punch it into a computer and see this is what the numbers are saying, this is what the calculations are saying.
Ryan’s worked with it. We’ve got a lot of people that have worked with sim everywhere that they’ve been. So you can pool all that knowledge and get a good, working program together.
Bowles: You’ve been in two different situations in your career: a multi-car team (with the former Dale Earnhardt Inc.) and the single-car team you’re with now. Give me one benefit and one challenge with working with a single-car outfit.
Smith: The benefit is the focus is all on your team. Everything the company and the organization has is getting dumped into that one team, and you’re getting 100% focus on the 50, 60, however many people that work there. But one disadvantage is you don’t have the notebook of four separate teams on a given weekend.
And that’s where that relationship with RCR that we’re working with now is going to be big for us. It’s going to help us out, because it’s going to give us somebody we can go to and say, “Hey. This is where we’re at. What do you guys think?”
And it works both ways. If we’re good, then maybe it’s a case where they look at our stuff and they say, “What did you guys do to run so well this weekend?”
Bowles: Just to play devil’s advocate, with RCR you’re getting equipment from somebody else. Now when you’re in that position, someone who’s an outside observer can look at it and wonder if you’re really getting “Type A” stuff from Childress? How do you know? Is it just kind of like a trust thing? Do you have to trust they’re doing the same for you?
Smith: It’s just like any relationship. You gotta have a certain amount of trust when you get involved in a relationship in the first place. And if that trust isn’t there from the start, then there’s no reason to have that relationship.
So we trust that those guys are giving us what they’re telling us they’re going to give. And we actually only have one car from them. We’ve tested it once, but we haven’t raced their cars. We do have the ability to look at notes that they’ve got the day of races and stuff like that.
But you don’t get involved in something like this partnership if you don’t trust the other party. With the money and the time, the people that are involved and the years of resources that’s involved… it’s going to tarnish their name [if they don’t live up to the terms of the deal].
So, it’s a two-way street. Both parties have to be held accountable.
Bowles: You’ve been involved in the series now in one way, shape, or form since 2007. How have you matured as a driver?
Smith: I think I’ve matured. I think I feel more comfortable out on the racetrack then when I first came in. There were times I got thrown to the wolves, man, at Bristol and Martinsville and places like that. Immediately… those weren’t the easiest racetracks to hop in and go for broke. So, I think I’ve progressed from that standpoint [where I’m not getting knocked around anymore].
Obviously, you want to be in the top 10 consistently, and that’s what we’re working on right now, getting to be where we’re at that level. I think we’ve got the tools put in place and the stuff there for our taking. We just have to make sure we do the right stuff right now.
Bowles: How will the spoiler affect you guys? Are you worried about it?
Smith: I wouldn’t say I’m worried about it. There’s still some little differences that we’re not going to see until we get to Texas. How far sideways can you get these cars before they snap on you, where you can’t come back and catch them? What will the balance change be over the course of the long run? We didn’t get any long runs in over the course of the test.
But overall, it’s really similar with the quarterpanels on there, with the shark fin on there. They did a good job keeping the balance pretty darn close on the car overall. And after the test, I don’t think it’s going to be as big a deal as I thought it was before the test.
But I also didn’t see anybody run side-by-side. And in order to test, you have to have a clear track in front of you. So nobody really wants to go up there and make it three-wide. It just doesn’t make sense. One other thing… Charlotte was a day test. Everything we do is at nighttime there, so everyone would have loved to have one night to see how our cars worked in the dark.
Bowles: So what are your expectations for 2010 with this team? With this your first full-time season with this organization, can you have a realistic goal of winning a championship?
Smith: Well, we got to be realistic about it. If we sit down and by the end of the season, if we can get to where we’re a 15th-place racecar or better consistently, that’s one of our goals. As the year goes on, we’ll be able to click top 10s off if that’s happening. Another thing that’s realistic is to finish somewhere around 20th in points. Anything better than that’s a great year, but 20th-25th is probably where we need to shake out. Anything worse than 25th, we definitely didn’t do our jobs when we sit back and look at it at the end of the day.
So those need to be our goals for this year. Going into next year, that’s going to ramp up and that’s going to shift. I’d like to believe that by the third year, we can get this program to where we can be a Chase contender. And either just barely miss the Chase, or make the Chase. But when you go from that 20th place to 15th place, it’s a huge jump in the competition, and then when you go from 15th to 10th-11th-12th, that can be huge, too.
Bowles: It must be nice to have the patience from a caring owner and sponsor to help with that growth.
Smith: Well, you have that patience, but also, it’s a performance industry. Everybody’s patience can run out at times. You don’t ever go into it thinking like that. We come into a race thinking we want a top 10 this weekend. But at the same time, if you look at the grand scheme of things, there are going to be races where we maybe have a bad pit stop and it costs us. Or maybe I screw up at the end of the race, or we just totally miss it and we’re not very good. So there’s a lot of peaks and valleys.
Bowles: Now, you’ve always been very good at keeping your car in one piece, once going over 50 races without a DNF. Is there anything about your driving style that helps you stay away from accidents?
Smith: I don’t know if it’s anything about my driving style. If you look back at my Nationwide stats, I wrecked a lot of stuff. I guess I hit the wall a few times, so I figured I didn’t really want to hit if I don’t have to. But I think part of that stat is a little deceiving because my rookie year we were right on the cusp of that Top 35 in owner points. We were 35th, 34th, we never had a huge gap there until the end of the season, and we had to worry about that. So we had to be finishing races, and I couldn’t go as aggressively as I wanted to at times, because if I went to the next weekend not locked-in, that wouldn’t have been a good situation for us.
So when you look back, that definitely played a little bit of a role.
Bowles: OK, some fun questions before we finish up. What’s the craziest thing a fan’s ever asked you to sign?
Smith: In general, them. I always thought it was it weird when somebody comes up and said, “Sign my arm or sign my back.” So probably just themselves personally.
I did have one lady, this was in Michigan, ask me to sign a thong. It wasn’t on her… but she had me sign it.
Bowles: Biggest sport you follow outside of racing?
Smith: Hockey. I’m a Northeasterner, hockey’s big up there. I grew up watching the Sabres and they were always on TV. I’m not really a Sabres fan, but I grew up watching it. And the ponds would freeze over, we wouldn’t really skate that much, but we’d go out with sticks, slip and slide and pretend like we were.
Now, I follow the Hurricanes. I go there quite a bit actually. This year, I haven’t gone that much, but last year, I never missed a playoff game. It was pretty cool… one benefit to the part-time schedule was I got to see lots of hockey. And now the River Rats are based out of Charlotte, so I can watch them whenever I want.
I also follow Syracuse basketball, too. When they lost to Butler, it sucked because I have a ton of friends in Indy, and I cost myself three dinners on that one!
Bowles: OK, last but not least. Worst ever experience in a racecar?
Smith: I don’t know. In theory, I would say a wreck… but I guess I have to say Talladega. That comes up so often, sometimes I don’t even think about it anymore. The first half-a-lap after the checkers was the best experience in a racecar, and the next half-a-lap after that was the worst once they told me what was going on and I realized we were getting hosed.
Because once they made their decision… I knew that was it. And that was a pretty hard pill to swallow.