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.