Late Thursday evening, Leavine Family Racing announced Kasey Kahne would miss this weekend’s Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard due to heat exhaustion from last weekend at Darlington Raceway.
In steps “super-sub” Regan Smith.
Smith, 34, has made a career of subbing for star-studded drivers, though having a win to his credit in 213 career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series starts. Over the last handful of years, Smith has replaced the likes of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who suffered a concussion, Tony Stewart after a dirt racing incident in 2014, Kurt Busch for being suspended in 2015, an ill Kyle Larson at Martinsville Speedway and most recently an injured Aric Almirola. He also subbed for Jimmie Johnson during a practice session years ago, so the seven-time champion could be on-site for the birth of his second daughter.
Despite the circumstances, Indianapolis is a special place for Smith to be a substitute driver this weekend.
“My thoughts are it’s Indy and I’m excited I’m going to be driving at Indy, and hell, I didn’t know if I was going to be driving a car this year, or again,” Smith said on Friday. When Bob [Leavine, team owner] called, it was about 2:30 yesterday afternoon, — and when he called and asked if ‘you’d like to race this weekend?’ I said sure, but I have to call a bunch of people and make sure it’s OK.
“I was supposed to be in the studio on Sunday, so we had to work through a few things. My bosses were all good about saying ‘yeah, go race.’ It’s such a special racetrack that it worked out well that I get to race here again. If it’s the last time I get to race here, great. It just worked out really well.”
In six career starts at the famed racetrack, Smith has a best finish of third in 2011, stretching his fuel mileage to go the distance. But in the past six Cup races at the track, he’s participated in just two events, while competing in four XFINITY races at IMS.
In nine career starts as a substitute driver in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Smith has a best finish of seventh in 2012, replacing Earnhardt.
“Call me whatever you want to call me as long as I get to drive occasionally,” Smith said. “It’s weird because I have a lot of mixed emotions now because I genuinely enjoy doing what I do on the TV side. In the first half of the year, that’s all I care about, making sure we’re doing a good job with the TV stuff and to try and give the fans what they want to see and we’re putting out a good product for them.
“It was about two weeks ago, I was saying to my wife, ‘man, maybe I need to go hop in something for a week, just to knock the rust off and go drive again.’ I was having one of those moments where you really miss it. I know a lot of guys are saying ‘hey, we’re retired,’ but I never said I’m retired.”
Smith mentioned he was getting fitted for a seat for the No. 95 car until 9 p.m. Thursday evening.
Smith said: “Let’s face it, Kasey is a lot smaller than me and I’ve got some of my TV weight on and maybe haven’t been doing all the right things I should be doing in the gym, but it’s been a cool 24 hours.”
But with rain in the forecast all weekend long at IMS, it’s possible Smith doesn’t turn his first laps of the season until the green flag on Sunday, or whenever the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard is run.
“When I sat down and looked at the weather forecast, I thought ‘well, we’re not going to get any practice, and I haven’t been in a Cup car in over a year. This could be fun, alright,” he said. “Out of all the Turn 1’s that are challenging, Indy is one of the most challenging that we have because it is so narrow and guys end up three – and four-wife trying to funnel into that corner. I don’t know what we’re going to do if we don’t get to practice.”
When Smith subbed for Stewart in 2014 at Watkins Glen International, he didn’t get to practice that car, either. However, the New York native was coming off a 17th-place finish in the XFINITY Series the day before.