Despite the noise, Smith shines through
DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Saturday night's Sprint Cup marathon at Darlington Raceway has been over for more than 45 minutes and two-thirds or more of the media corps are outside the NASCAR hauler waiting for Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch to emerge following their postrace confrontation.
This feels wrong.
We should be in Victory Lane, asking Regan Smith about the biggest win of his life -- his first in the Sprint Cup Series -- one of the biggest upsets in NASCAR history, one of the best feel-good moments this sport has seen in years.
Instead, we are waiting for two grown men who for a moment turned into children and lost their cool.
Smith, 27, deserves the spotlight. He gambled and stayed out when most of the leaders pitted for tires after caution came out with 10 laps remaining. He spun his tires and kept the lead after the restart, which didn't last a full lap because Busch, Harvick and Clint Bowyer got into a three-wide shoving match that ended with Bowyer knocked out and Harvick's car severely damaged.
Smith held off points leader Carl Edwards for two laps on the green-white-checkered finish to put his name on a trophy filled with Hall of Famers such as David Pearson, Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough at a track where mostly legends win.
Smith deserved so much more than to have to share this moment with Busch and Harvick, who climbed out of his car on pit road and took a few swings at Busch before Busch shoved the No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet into the pit road retaining wall and and drove away.
"I'm really excited for Regan Smith and I'm sorry you are not there talking to him," Harvick said before disappearing into the motorcoach lot.
The good news is that NASCAR can't take this win away from Smith like it did in 2008, when it gave Tony Stewart the victory at Talladega Superspeedway because Smith was below the cursed yellow line when he took the checkered flag.
The bad news is that most of the watercooler talk and probably most of the television highlights will be about Busch and Harvick.
That's the way NASCAR is. Drama typically outweighs performance.
But Smith's win was huge drama as well. He not only got his first win in 104 career starts, he got his first top-5. He did it with a one-car operation out of Denver, far from the NASCAR hub of Charlotte, N.C., where most of the teams are based.
His emotion was priceless, even better than that of 20-year-old Trevor Bayne after winning the Daytona 500.
"Oh, man, this is too cool," Smith said as he began his cool-down lap. "I can't believe this. This is awesome. This is the Southern 500. We're not supposed to win this thing."
No, they weren't.
But they did, and nothing should distract from it.
"I just told him this is a pretty big deal," Edwards said.
It's a very big deal. Furniture Row Racing is a team with only 64 employees that uses a pit crew supplied by Stewart-Haas Racing, engines from Earnhardt-Childress Racing and chassis from Richard Childress Racing.
It's not just a victory for Smith, it's a victory for the little guys, the ones who bang their heads against the wall hoping to survive in a sport dominated by the power teams at RCR, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Roush Fenway Racing.
"I can't believe it," Smith said. "This is too f------ cool."
Need more feel-good drama? In a race in which most drivers were introduced with their mothers celebrating Mother's Day weekend, Smith walked out alone. His mother, Lee, was in Alabama helping with tornado relief, primarily in animal rescue.
Go ahead, dry your eyes.
Smith's eyes watered up as he told of his brief conversation with her.
"I didn't get too many words out of her other than, 'I love you and boo-hoo-hoo,'" he said.
Smith started 23rd and was running 12th with about 100 laps remaining. This race looked like it would come down to Kasey Kahne, Harvick, Busch or Edwards, who collectively led 306 of the 370 laps.
Edwards appeared to be the runaway winner of an event that ended just before midnight, but then Jeff Burton's engine blew with 10 laps remaining to bring out the caution.
Immediately, crew chiefs and drivers began debating strategy. When Edwards pitted, the five cars behind him followed. Smith, Brad Keselowski and Stewart stayed out to take the top three spots.
Smith spun his tires on the restart, allowing Edwards to move past Keselowski into second before Busch, Harvick and Bowyer brought out caution again with four laps remaining.
On the final restart, Smith's tires held firm and he got a big jump on Edwards. At that point the 2008 rookie of the year with Dale Earnhardt Inc. thought he would at least finish second because he and Edwards had separated from the pack.
So he put the pedal down hard and drove the final 1.366 miles around this egg-shaped facility like a qualifying lap, which he's been quite good at this season. Coming off of Turn 2, he smacked the wall but never let up. Coming off the final turn he dove down low, blocking Edwards and taking the checkered without a real challenge.
Then the emotions began to flow -- tears from Smith and anger from Busch and Harvick.
You could hear the vindication in Smith's voice for what happened at Talladega just as loudly as you could hear the anger in Harvick's as he lashed out at Busch's team outside of the No. 18 hauler following their pit-road exchange.
"I'll be honest with you, I didn't know if I was ever going to get that one back," Smith said of Talladega. "To get it at Darlington is absolute vindication."
Harvick and Busch were rather flip about their incident, brushing it off as a racing incident even though their emotions said it was more. NASCAR will decide early next week whether they deserve punishment.
Neither probably understands the emotions Smith felt. They've both had big-time organizations and sponsors behind them from the time they entered the sport. Smith lost his ride at DEI when the organization shut down following his rookie season to merge with Chip Ganassi Racing.
He drove part-time for Furniture Row in 2009 before getting a full-time deal in 2010.
"There were times last year I was thinking, 'Heck, maybe they are going to fire me,'" Smith said.
Yes, Smith deserved all of the attention and focus for Saturday night's win.
It feels right giving it to him.
"I don't really know how to put it into words right now," Smith said. "It feels a lot different at the end of the day when you say, 'Hey, I won at Darlington.' "
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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