2012 Rides: No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet, No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet
2012 Primary Sponsors: Furniture Row/Denver Mattress, Aurora Colorado Victims Tribute, AMP Energy, National Guard, Diet Mountain Dew, Phoenix Construction
2012 Owners: Barney Visser (No. 78), Rick Hendrick (No. 88), James Finch (No. 51)
2012 Crew Chiefs: Pete Rondeau (Feb. – July, No. 78), Todd Berrier (July – Oct., No. 78), Steve Letarte (No. 88), Nick Harrison (No. 51)
2012 Stats: 34 starts, 0 wins, 1 top five, 4 top 10s, 4 DNFs, 24th in points
High Point: While it came at the expense of fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr., Smith’s shining moment came when he had the opportunity to compete in Hendrick Motorsports equipment for two races – both during the Chase. While he blew an engine in his first race with the team at Charlotte, which became a major personal disappointment, Kansas offered a chance at redemption. There, he ran consistently in the top 10 all day and eventually came home in seventh. It left many to wonder what Smith could really do in the right equipment.
With Earnhardt sitting out due to a concussion, Smith had recently lost his ride with Furniture Row Racing – availability which earned him an opportunity that paid off in the long run. The time in the car actually caught Earnhardt’s attention, who is now putting Smith in one of his Nationwide Series cars full-time in 2013. (Hendrick, Earnhardt and Smith had been negotiating beforehand but this substitute work all but sealed the deal).
Low Point: Unfortunately, after Kansas and Earnhardt returned to the track, Smith was left without a ride for a few weeks when his initial replacement for FRR’s No. 78, Phoenix Racing, left him sidelined. With that team in need of a driver following Kurt Busch’s departure to drive FRR’s No. 78 and Smith occupied with the No. 88, Phoenix pegged AJ Allmendinger to drive for them in several events. While Smith was able to compete in the final two races of the season, for Phoenix it was a case of adding insult to injury for the driver who had been playing musical chairs with various NASCAR teams for several weeks.
Summary: For Smith, the season was full of ups and downs. While the opportunity to drive for Hendrick Motorsports turned out to be a real career changer, it certainly wasn’t good for the well-behaved Smith when he was kicked out of FRR early to make room for trouble-making Kurt Busch. Smith handled it like a pro but was obviously bitter on how the cards fell against him. Even then, Smith’s opportunity with HMS still kept him from a ride for two of the last four races because Phoenix Racing had already pegged Allmendinger to drive for them. Thankfully, next year he’ll have a chance to stick it to both Phoenix and Furniture Row in the Nationwide Series next season.
How did FRR and Smith fall apart? The team never took a major step forward following Smith’s upset win at Darlington in May of 2011. This season, he led just two laps in the season-opening Daytona 500 and chemistry with old crew chief Pete Rondeau fizzled out. The team posted just two top-15 finishes, at Darlington and Las Vegas, before he was replaced by Todd Berrier in July. That pairing led to a brief spark, including back-to-back top-10 finishes at Indianapolis and Pocono, but in the long run, owner Barney Visser thought Busch would be a better long-term solution for the program.
2013 Outlook: Filling in for Earnhardt Jr. turned out to be a good thing when Earnhardt announced that Smith would drive for his team full-time in 2013. JR Motorsports is closely affiliated with Hendrick Motorsports, for obvious reasons, and has some of the best equipment of any team in the garage. Based on Smith’s performance in the Sprint Cup Series, we should expect to see him as a frontrunner for the Nationwide Series championship in 2013.
2008 Frontstretch Grade: B-
2009 Grade: Incomplete
2010 Grade: C
2011 Grade: B
2012 Grade: B+
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