Regan Smith has been racing in NASCAR Sprint Cup since the 2007 Food City 500 at Bristol; in 2008 he was Rookie of the Year (beating out Sam Hornish Jr.) and became the first rookie driver in Sprint Cup history ever to finish every race he entered. And at Talladega in the autumn he came tantalisingly close to winning his first race, before he was disqualified for dipping below the notorious double yellow line to overtake Tony Stewart.
Little did he know it would be more than two and a half years, 105 races from his series debut, before he would actually take that final step and make it to victory road. Or that it would be a Saturday evening race under floodlights at Darlington Raceway that would finally deliver him the title of "NASCAR race winner".
Ironically for someone who had the best starting position average of any Sprint Cup driver in 2011 (7.1, compared with an average finishing position of a very poor 24.6) Smith's big race dawned with his worst starting position of the season to date - he was back in 23rd position, after rain had wiped out most of practice and left qualifying a hurried, harried affair amidst the threat of showers.
That qualifying session had meant that the field was led to the green flag by Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman on the front row, Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards ominously lurking right behind them on the second row, with Jeff Gordon fifth, Tony Stewart ninth, Kyle Busch in 14th and Jimmie Johnson starting back in 19th.
Kahne and Newman were quick to battle for the lead, but Mike Skinner was equally quick to go spinning on lap 5 and bring out an early yellow and it was the restart that enabled Newman to get the jump on Kahne and actually move to the front when racing resumed. Drivers on the move early on included Jeff Gordon (quickly up to third), Kyle Busch (rapidly up into the top five), brother Kurt, David Reutimann and Jimmie Johnson. Among those going in the wrong direction were Carl Edwards, who was having trouble with the splitter of the #99 scraping the ground out of the turns - a problem shared by the #43 of AJ Allmendinger.
A second yellow came out on lap 34 for JJ Yeley's troubling smoking habit, and the caution took the place of a "competition" yellow that had been planned for around this part of the race to allow teams and drivers to check their cars given the lack of practice time in Friday's rain. That meant everyone was obliged to pit, and on the other side it was Kasey Kahne back in the lead ahead of Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.
Kahne was easily fastest at the restart on lap 41 and soon had over a second lead on Busch. Having a poor time of it during this stage of the race was Matt Kenseth who was badly off the pace and haemorrhaging positions, falling to the back of the lead lap by lap 55. On the radio, he asked his pit crew chief: "Jimmy, did you pull out a front end shim out or something?" and there was no question that he needed an emergency dive to pit lane for adjustments. Unfortunately he missed the pit lane commitment line and added a drive-thru penalty to his woes, putting him three laps down and thoroughly wrecking his chances for a much-needed good result here.
Kyle was beginning to despair of finding any answer to Kahne's dominance at the front when a yellow came out on lap 73 for David Gilliland hitting the wall. Following the pit stops, Jamie McMurray popped up in the lead after taking two tyres where everyone else stayed put for four, with Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch and Juan Montoya forming the remainder of the front two rows at the double file restart; Tony Stewart came out of it worst, having problems identifying his pit stall, then needing a chassis adjustment, and finally slow off pit road as well.
Once the track went green again, Jimmie Johnson was the man on the move - quickly past Jeff Gordon on his march toward the top spots. But that put him and Juan Montoya into close proximity, and on lap 83 the two made the lightest of contact seconds after Johnson had appeared to move up and pinch Montoya against the wall, hinting that Montoya's comeback might not have been entirely innocent. Johnson went for a spin that fortunately managed not to include contact with the wall, meaning both cars got away with minimal damage other than flat-spotted tyres on the #48. "I got hit in the back for no reason," reported Johnson over the radio.
"[Montoya's] a ****," Johnson's pit chief Chad Knaus commiserated with his driver. "I don't know what the **** he was thinking." Alluding to the stories of a running feud all week between Montoya and Newman since their on-track spat at Richmond, Knaus concluded: "He's just mad at the world."
Montoya radioed his apologies - "Sorry, I locked the front tires" - but added that the #48 was also early off the gas. Team Johnson was unimpressed: "He's a way better driver than that," said Knaus: "No apology there."
After the restart on lap 88 Kahne was quickly back in front, and Montoya equally quick to be back into the wars, this time with contact with Brian Vickers; fortunately the Red Bull driver was able to save the #83 and avoid another quick yellow flag coming out.
McMurray's two-tyre gamble was exposed as a mistake and he sank back, with Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick taking up the top four positions ahead of him, but well behind Kahne who was far away in front. As the cars got a decent stretch of green flag running, Kahne found his car getting loose and hotter as the laps clicked past, and by lap 115 his lead had evaporated and he had no answer for Carl Edwards coming on strong and sailing past him to take to the front.
The teams were just contemplating the onset of green flag pit stops when the fifth caution of the afternoon arrived on lap 122 for debris on the track, and the cars gratefully took to pit road. As so often happens, the #18 pit crew put Kyle Busch back out on track in the lead ahead of Carl Edwards, David Reutimann, Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick: Tony Stewart had a scare when his team dropped a lugnut; Jimmie Johnson was left loose and ruing not asking his team to tighten him up while he had the chance; and Paul Menard got hit from behind in pit lane by Brad Keselowski that spun him sideways into his pit box; the team just got to work on the #27 anyways. To rub salt into the wound, Menard then got himself a pit lane exit speeding violation.
Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards were quickly away in front when racing resumed on lap 127, but David Reutimann - who had gambled on taking two tyres only - was moving backwards and was replaced in the top spots by Kasey Kahne recovering from a slightly sluggish pit stop. Jeff Gordon was dropping backwards complaining that his car was now too loose, and Johnson was indeed suffering from the same problem and dropped out of the top 20.
The green flag stint lasted almost a hundred laps, meaning that it included a round of green flag pit stops which saw Martin Truex Jr. losing it and spinning as he tried to make it down onto pit lane at speed. Kyle Busch, having built up a 2.5s lead over Edwards, was easily able to come in, pit and get out again in the lead without any dramas; and the stops also saw a revival in fortunes for both Gordon and Johnson who were finally moving in the right direction again.
But just when it looked as though Kyle Busch was cruising to a dominant victory, disaster struck the #18 as they passed the 200 lap marker: a vibration was the tell-tale sign of a loose wheel, and he had no option but to dive into pit road on lap 205 for a costly unscheduled green flag pit stop for new tyres. It put the former leader down to 27th place and a lap off the lead, and things looked bleak for him from here.
Carl Edwards inherited the lead, and also the battle through lapped traffic. A few laps earlier he'd flirted with disaster himself, having hit the wall on lap 192. "How bad did I tear up the right rear, Jason?" Edwards had asked his spotter, Jason Hedlesky. "Not too bad. I guess if you're going to do it, that's the way to do it," came the reply - and sure enough it didn't seem to be having too bad an effect on his pace now he was in the lead.
Edwards was still leading Harvick and Kahne when the sixth caution came out on lap 220. The cause this time was a solo spin by Jimmie Johnson after a tyre went down. He was having an uncharacteristically messy evening of it, but once again the reigning champion's luck held and he made no contact and was able to carry on after the ensuing round of pit stops that saw Edwards, Harvick, Kahne, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon remain up in front.
The next green flag lasted only four laps before the seventh caution on lap 229, resulting from a collision between Brian Vickers and David Ragan: Ragan got loose off the turn, and spun across the front of Vickers; the nose of the #6 embedded itself into the front left side of Vickers' car and then, as Vickers carried on past, literally peeled the skin off the side of the #83 like a can opener, leaving Vickers with major bodywork ripped off and flapping around, and impact foam all over the track from inside the bodywork.
The caution gave Martin Truex Jr. the lucky dog free pass, which meant that Kyle Busch was still a lap off the leaders. "What position am I now, please?" he radioed in rather bleakly, to which crew chief Dave Rogers responded succinctly: "21st".
Carl Edwards led the field to the green flag on lap 235 but quickly dropped two positions to Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne, before the race was immediately back under caution for Joey Logano spinning after contact with Marcos Ambrose. It was ironically good news for Logano's team mate, Kyle Busch, who finally got the lucky dog this time and was back on the lead lap again at last after that unfortunate loose tyre, and with plenty of time yet to make it back to the front.
Currently in the lead for the restart on lap 243 was Kevin Harvick, followed by Kasey Kahne, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, but Busch served early notice of his intent to get back among them by some eye-catching aggressive driving, sweeping down to the inner apron to gain multiple spots without a second thought. He was back into top 15 by lap 263, only a few places back from Regan Smith who by now was lurking on the outskirts of the top ten.
Tony Stewart had just pitted under green for tyres and fuel on lap 278 when the ninth caution of the evening came out after Mark Martin smacked the wall, leaving the #5 sending up smoke signals. Stewart was fortunate to get the wave-around as the leaders came in for their stops under what should have been a less stressful yellow, but in fact there were multiple incidents on pit road including Paul Menard nearly running over the member of his pit crew who had been attempting to clean up the grille, and Jeff Gordon taking off with his gas man who was still pumping fuel into the back of the #24.
At the green flag on lap 284, Kasey Kahne has displaced Kevin Harvick during the pit stops and they were followed by Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was the biggest mover in the race at this point having started from 30th on the grid. Further back, Jimmie Johnson was also back on the lead lap having received this caution's lucky dog - the latest of several big names needing that same get out of jail free card here tonight at Darlington.
A length green flag period followed, with Kahne maintaining the lead through to and after the green flag pit stops which started around lap 320. However, Carl Edwards was feeling very confident and reported to the team that he felt they had the car to beat tonight - all they had to do was get the #99 to the front. Other drivers were less happy with the state of affairs, with Johnson and McMurray both reporting worrying wheel vibrations before they came in for their respective pit stops. And worst of all, Earnhardt Jr. undid all that earlier good work with a spin coming into pit lane that saw him hit the commitment line cone, incurring a drive-thru penalty that ejected him from the lead lap.
With potentially the final pit stops out of the way, the drivers got down to the serious battle of the race endgame. Edwards asserted himself and followed through on his earlier boast, taking the lead from Kahne who wasn't wildly happy with the current state of his car: "I'm too tight," he radioed to his pit crew. "Tighter than the last time for sure"
Denny Hamlin had also emerged as a potent threat to the leaders, and it took a determined effort by Kevin Harvick to pass him on lap 335 which saw Harvick come close to spinning the #11 although no actual contact was made. Both cars survived the scare, with Hamlin now having to fend off the attentions of Regan Smith for fifth place, as Smith targeted a career-best finish (the previous best being seventh at this year's Daytona 500.)
The race was just ten laps away from its scheduled end when the tenth yellow of the evening came out, for Jeff Burton's car blowing up. He'd radioed earlier that his water and oil readings were all showing red lights, and now he knew that they hadn't been bluffing. The late caution now gave the crews the chance to bring their drivers in for fresh rubber - just two new tyres could make a race-winning difference at this point - and most of them did, although Jimmie Johnson would come to rue the decision after a fumbled lugnut saw him recalled for a second pass through to cap what had been a trying evening. A few cars gambled on staying out without fresh rubber: Regan Smith, Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart took up the top spots. But it would take something big - ideally, another caution and a green-and-chequered finish - to make this Hail Mary pay off.
And then on lap 363 came the wreck that everyone would still be talking about the morning after. Kevin Harvick was moving up on Kyle Busch when the #18 seemed to struggle off the turn and lose a little momentum; the two rubbed alongside each other before Kyle pulled out in front, and Harvick gave the back of the #18 a tap but both cars were able to absorb the impact. It did give Clint Bowyer an opportunity to dive down the inside of the two as they slowed up, and they were three-wide out off the turn with Harvick in the middle and Busch on the outside.
The three compressed as they came out of the turn, and Harvick in the middle ran out of room. First he hit Busch - who was right up against the wall and bounced toward it, destabilising Harvick who shook left and hit Bowyer on the inside instead. And Bowyer got by far the worst of it, sent sheering off at right angles to make a nasty, hard head-on impact with the inside wall that crunched up the nose in a big way and made sure he would play no part in the restart.
"It was tight racing after the restart there and Harvick was up on the top, a little bit loose, and I gave him room," claimed Busch afterwards. "He kind of came off the wall - that's a bad angle, obviously - and then lifted early to let me go into turn 3 and I thought it was all good. Then he drives into the back of me there, so ... it made my car loose all the way through the exit, and just made a run for those two guys to get back on my inside.
"And then obviously Clint wrecked, bouncing off Harvick. It was just uncalled-for; it was unacceptable racing. I know it's the last couple of laps, but I gave him room coming off 2 and I didn't get the room."
And the incident was not done just because the caution was out: Busch moved down off the wall as they proceeding down the straight, and tagged the back of the #29 sending Harvick for a spin. Both cars would need to take to pit lane, but while Busch went on to finish in 11th the additional spin had sent Harvick all the way down to 17th, and he was steamed up about it.
After all that, there was still a race to resolve - Regan Smith led Carl Edwards to the green-and-chequered flag on lap 368, getting a good start thanks to a boost from Brad Keselowski; but he was unable to pull away from the #99 who was right on his tail and threatening to deny him that all-important first career win. On the final lap, Smith was pushing so hard that his rear end stepped out and he scrapped the wall out of turn 2, but he gathered it up and didn't give Edwards any chance to react by diving down to the inside line. The moment of danger had passed for the #78: the chequered flag - and the win - was finally his.
"I can't believe it, you guys," Smith said over the radio. "This is the Southern 500. We're not supposed to win this thing. As well as Smith's frst series win, it's also a first victory for his team and for owner Barney Visser. "I don't really know how to put it in words right now. It is so surreal," Smith added.
"There's been a lot of times when they could have gotten down on me last year [or] this year, and everybody stuck behind me and gave me the support I needed to keep my head on straight. I'll be honest with you, when I walked to the car tonight, I literally thought we could win the race. I think that every week when I walk to the car. The difference is, this week we did."
But there were shenanigans brewing elsewhere over that lap 363 accident: Harvick was blatantly tracking Kyle Busch around the cool-down lap, so that the #18 even opted to overshoot the entrance to pit lane in a bid to avoid the attentions of the #29. Harvick wasn't about to let him get away with that and continued to stalk Busch, the two of them briefly coming to a stop before Busch then made a move to circle back to the pit lane entry.
Harvick got in first, the damaged car of Bobby Labonte briefly trapped in the middle of this stand-off before Harvick allowed it through. Then Harvick stopped to block the #18 getting further down pit lane, jumped out of his car and stormed over to Busch's driver-side window and appeared to aim a punch through it, at which point Busch reacted by flooring the accelerator - and pushed the driverless #29 ahead of him around, sending it skewing into the pit wall. Fortunately no one was in the way when he did, and Kyle exited to the garage area while the altercation spilled out and seized the two drivers' respective teams, Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing - ironically situated side-by-side on pit lane, and thus having to be physically separated by a NASCAR peacekeeping task-force as harsh words turned to physical shoves between them.
NASCAR downplayed the incident and tried to redirect attention to the worthy winner in pit lane, but added that they will be looking at everything that happened at the usual Tuesday post-race wrap-up meeting and deciding if any penalties and sanctions are due to any driver as a result of what happened on Saturday night.
Whatever the decisions, though, this time it won't affect the race winner: almost three years after being stripped of his "first win" at Talladega, this time Regan Smith had won it fair and square. About time too for the 27-year-old New Yorker, and quite right!Full race results
are available in the results section; more details on the Busch/Harvick battle
are in the news section.