As an athlete’s childhood dreams turn real, a career plan gets developed complete with goals they believe will take them on an express ride towards the top. Even the smallest egos compete with a catalog of their future success in mind: winning the biggest race, setting a new record, or sharpening your leadership skills are often tops on the list, in the process becoming the person children grow up to be and adults unconditionally respect.
What they don’t explain in the heat of the battle, though, is life has a way of automatically defining how the public perceives you. And sometimes, despite the best-laid plans, you’re often not given a choice.
Regan Smith should know. For three years, any conversation involving NASCAR, his name, and driving ability has ended with the words “that guy.” It’s a racing life trivialized by the word “almost,” a Sprint Cup winner in imagination only after crossing the finish line first one day at Talladega. On that fall Sunday in 2008, it was Smith, driving in his rookie season for Dale Earnhardt, Incorporated who dove below the yellow line in a last-ditch effort to beat Tony Stewart to the checkers. The young protégé, ecstatic in snookering an established veteran thought he’d won a trophy fair and square, along with the vast majority of fans in attendance.
But the guys who make the rules thought otherwise, NASCAR officials transforming Smith’s career with their call. In a few short seconds, the rookie went from megastar to quarter-life crisis in the form of a double whammy: the loss of a win and the burden of a cross, one attached to his back for good as “the guy with the asterisk.”
“I can honestly say in a five-minute period there I completely ran the full spectrum of emotions,” Smith said days later. “They say in racing you have the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, and I felt all of that in a pretty short period of time.”
It took weeks for the roller coaster to stop, as sympathy reigned on Smith and the win that got away. In the short-term, pity was a nice consolation prize, but the problem was it came with no tangible reward; for people in power, emotions don’t come into play to help build your career when lack of sponsorship, nor results on paper force them to harden their heart. Second place is the first loser… 18th? That would hardly get the Rookie of the Year a chair in the boardroom, let alone a face-to-face with Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress or some of the other big-money car owners with open seats at the time. Feelings couldn’t stop a downward spiral, DEI’s imminent demise leading towards a November pink slip that left Smith begging for a job. With no win, let alone a top 10 on the resume only one was offered: a part-time effort for a small team out of Colorado, a car whose claim to Sprint Cup fame had been little more than simply qualifying for races.
This driver was so much better than that, or so it seemed. After all, pretend millionaire magnate Bobby Ginn picked him to pair with Mark Martin in ’07, turning into a prodigy who impressed the veteran in both personality and performance. Smith ran seven Cup and 17 Nationwide races that year, scoring a pole in the second-tier division along with three top-5 finishes before the right people figured out his owner was playing with pretend money after all. Still, DEI wasted no time handing the keys to a full-time ride the following season, picking up the pieces at Ginn while offering what seemed to be a long-term opportunity that wouldn’t crumble. If you’d have asked Smith in February 2008 about his career, the foundation appeared in place for a bright future.
How quickly things can change, why predictions are as good as Ginn’s monopoly money: life happens, collapses prove unavoidable. And for Smith, that left an answer of scaling back to a part-time schedule amongst the rubble, living with the nightmare while forcing himself to take one step back in order to keep moving forward.
“My rookie season, even though we won the Rookie-of-the-Year deal, it wasn’t the type of year you want to have by any means,” he said Saturday night. “There’s been so many ups and downs for my career, so many points where you think, Man, what am I doing? What’s the next move?”
Losing a foundation is tough, but perhaps the toughest moments come in rebuilding what you had, working ten times harder to come one-tenth as close to what you lost. In ’09, his first year with the single-car No. 78 money was scarce and the team, despite filled with the blood, sweat, and tears of underdog potential had limited finishes to show for it. In twenty race attempts, they failed to qualify twice, never led during a race and finished on the lead lap just four times. Their only top-15 finishes, at Daytona and Talladega came with the aid of a restrictor plate while four of their final six starts ended with the aid of a wrecker bringing a totaled car back to the garage.
“I’m not going to lie, there has been some sleepless nights,” Smith explained about his FRR tenure. “I’ve laid there, I can’t fall asleep. Might be after a race. I did this wrong, I did that wrong.”
Perhaps the low point in that crisis of confidence came in the face of inflated expectations for his second season with the team last year. Back to running a full-time schedule, the team accomplished its goal of a top-35 spot in owner points but not its quest for even a single top-10 finish. Instead, four DNF’s, a number of additional trips behind the wall for mechanical failure and in-race mistakes transformed a year of lost opportunities.
“Last year I was thinking, ‘Maybe they’re going to fire me,’” Smith explained, responding bluntly to a time where the “Talladega miss” started to look like the only thing he’d ever be known for. “I broke my wrist at Sonoma [last June] and raced at Loudon with it broke completely, didn’t have it fixed. I got out of the car, it hurt really bad, it was a horrible day. We were so far off the pace. Probably one of the worst races I personally ever have driven.”
“As a driver, you never know when your last race is going to be. But… everybody stuck behind me and has given me the support that I needed as a driver to keep my head on straight.”
Perhaps that’s the trick to pull an underdog upset: surviving, fighting through adversity to the point where one day, you strike when your bigger, richer rivals don’t know how to deal with it. It’s what Smith’s team did long before his arrival, a single-car effort based 2,000 miles away whose pit crew, engines, and chassis come from different programs. 64 employees strong (or small), their lone achievement entering 2011 had been choosing to stay the course while similar types of programs around them turned towards a more effective, less stressful business model: start-and-parking.
“A lot of people,” said FRR GM Joe Garone, who credits the help from partners Earnhardt-Childress (engines), RCR (chassis), and Stewart-Haas (pit crew) for getting over the hump. “And I can’t say I wasn’t with them when [owner] Barney Visser wanted it run out of Colorado, [thought] that we might just be crazy.”
“After the second or third year we started realizing we can compete in Cup, we can do a good job, get ourselves in a position to win races. [But] you need partners. You need to have those relationships not just in place, but they have to be good relationships. Kind of cool to have that support from other racing teams.”
“I guess the more doors get slammed in your face,” added Smith, armed with the knowledge of how those big teams still have bigger resources, “The thicker your skin is.”
Perhaps the thickest skin, the one that helped them get over the hump comes from the man who had the guts to lead the team to glory Saturday night: crew chief Pete Rondeau. It’s been a long time since the head wrench was last in the spotlight, classified with an ugly label all his own: “The crew chief Dale Jr. couldn’t stand.” Replacing Tony Eury, Sr. on the No. 8 car in 2005, it took five seasons before FRR came calling with a second pit box opportunity last May, the final piece in a puzzle of underdogs trying to bounce back. By the first few races of 2011, his impact after an offseason to prepare proved impressive: a seventh-place finish in the Daytona 500, a league-leading average start of 7.1 through the first nine events and a fresh injection of confidence for Smith during the down times. For while his driver felt a need to prove himself, it’s obvious the crew chief, even with just as big a shadow over his career felt he already did.
“I don’t have any vindication from that,” Rondeau said after Victory Lane Saturday night. “I guess a lot of things go around, some come around. This just came around.”
Now, with a call to stay out for the Lady In Black’s final caution, moving Smith from sixth to first with eight laps left the rebound has led everyone back from the abyss and into a place no one can ever touch them: racing immortality. And despite Rondeau trying to downplay it all, an emotional Smith proved the opposite, spending much of his post-race press conference trying to quantify what it all means. It was a cacophony of emotions running through his head for the world to see: missing his mom (who was busy saving animals down in tornado-ravaged Alabama) or thanking his supporters (who included virtually the entire 43-car field congratulating him in Victory Lane, aware of the hard work involved in salvaging a career). Most importantly, he honored the tradition of one of NASCAR’s oldest facilities, appreciating the magnitude of the moment at a Track Too Tough To Tame that suddenly, unpredictably developed a soft spot for the underdog.
“This is so special,” he said. “We were looking at the names and faces on the trophy. You think about it. My face is going to be right there next to these guys and it’s going to be there forever. You can’t change that.”
But as we learned Saturday night, with the right type of results you _can_ change public perception. Finally, after years of despair from this day forward Smith, Rondeau, and the little team that could don’t have to bear their crosses anymore.
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