Sunday, May 8, 2011

Regan Smith holds off Edwards at Darlington for first Cup win

Sunday, May 8, 2011

DARLINGTON, S.C. ? Regan Smith pulled off a Sprint Cup stunner Saturday at Darlington Raceway, holding off Carl Edwards for the first victory of his career.

  • Regan Smith celebrates at Darlington Raceway after capturing the Showtime Southern 500, his first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory in 105 starts.

    By Chris Graythen, Getty Images

    Regan Smith celebrates at Darlington Raceway after capturing the Showtime Southern 500, his first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory in 105 starts.

By Chris Graythen, Getty Images

Regan Smith celebrates at Darlington Raceway after capturing the Showtime Southern 500, his first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory in 105 starts.

As pyrotechnics exploded in the night sky saluting the series' newest winner at one of NASCAR's most venerable racetracks, there were old-school fireworks in the pits, too, as Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch renewed a year-long feud.

Those will be the twin indelible images from the 62nd annual running of the Showtime Southern 500: a surprise winner in victory lane and an attempted sucker punch that didn't connect.

And if the feel-good story of Smith, who drives the No. 78 Chevrolet for unheralded Furniture Row Racing, is overshadowed by a combustible rivalry between two of the sport's more fiery personalities?

NASCAR's newest winner says he won't mind.

"I have no clue what happened in the race other than us winning," Smith said, smiling. "If (Busch and Harvick are) what's talked about next week, so be it. I don't care. It's not going to take away from the feeling I've got right now."

Smith had plenty to feel good about late Saturday night, even though his mother, Lee, missed the Mother's Day weekend celebration of firsts:

— He became the first first-time winner at Darlington, considered the circuit's trickiest track, since Lake Speed in 1988.

— He positioned himself for possibly earning a Chase for the Sprint Cup berth, provided he can climb into the top 20 in points over the next 16 races (he is ranked 27th, 29 points out of 20th).

— He joined a roster of legendary winners whose faces are etched in bronze on the base of the Southern 500 trophy. David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, Bill Elliott, Jeff Gordon, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip are among the countless famous visages who grace the trophy.

And now a 27-year-old from upstate New York who radioed "we're not supposed to win this thing!" shortly after taking the checkered flag.

"Well, at least you picked an easy one, bud," crew chief Pete Rondeau responded.

Apart from the fracas surrounding Busch and Harvick, there was no controversy surrounding this win by Smith, who had an October 2008 race at Talladega Superspeedway stripped when NASCAR ruled he passed Tony Stewart below the yellow line.

Saturday erased some of that string.

"This is a lot cooler race than Talladega to win," Smith said. "It feels a lot different at the end of the day when you say 'Hey, I won a race at Darlington'. The names that have won here … the Pearsons, Yarboroughs and on and on, you name it. I was sitting behind some of those guys today and I was thinking 'Man, these guys are pretty awesome. They are legendary'. I don't know if my name deserves to be next to them, but after tonight, maybe it does."

Though Smith inherited the lead on Lap 360 of a scheduled 367 by electing not to pit under caution, he still had to stave off a furious charge by Edwards on a green-white-checkered finish.

On the final lap around the egg-shaped, 1.366-mile oval, Smith held his throttle wide open through the treacherous Turn 2, slamming the wall to earn his final Darlington stripe of the night without losing control of his car.

It was a bittersweet ending for Edwards, who once worked on a truck raced by Smith (who treated his crewmembers "like gold", the Roush Fenway driver said).

"Man, I really felt like that was our race to win," said Edwards, the runner-up in the season's two biggest upsets (he was second to Trevor Bayne in the Daytona 500). "Regan is a heck of a guy. That's NASCAR racing. As upset as I am to have lost that race, I'm happy for Regan and his accomplishment. But, man, I'll run that one back a few times in my head."

NASCAR figures to be hitting the replay button often on the race's final five laps over the next few days while deciding whether to mete out punishment to Busch and Harvick.

The incident began on Lap 364 when Busch said Harvick drove into his No. 18 Toyota after lifting off his accelerator to allow a pass. After wiggling through Turn 3, Busch made it three wide with the Richard Childress Racing Chevrolets of Harvick and Clint Bowyer. Bowyer ran out of room and hit his teammate, spinning into the inside SAFER barrier.

Busch then appeared to hook Harvick's No. 29 Chevrolet on the straightaway, sending it into the outside barrier.

"Just uncalled for and just unacceptable racing," said Busch, who battled back for 11th after falling a lap down with a loose wheel. "It's in the last couple laps, but I gave him room off of (Turn 2), and I didn't get the room. Just real unfortunate. We tore up a few good cars there."

On the cool-down lap, both Harvick and Busch tried to wait each other out entering the pits, inching forward as if they were in the staging lanes of a drag race. Busch eventually stopped behind Harvick, who climbed out, walked to Busch's car and seemed to get a few swings in at the window net before Busch's rammed Harvick's car out of the way and headed to the garage.

After both drivers met in the NASCAR hauler after the race, Busch provided a detailed account of his version:

"I see Harvick up flying up on my inside through three and four (on the cool-down lap)," Busch said. "Instead of going to pit road I thought he was going to force me into the inside of the pit road wall so I gave myself a little bit of room and turned up to go back up onto the race track like I would for another cool down lap, and he followed me.

"When he pulled up next to me, I tried to back up. I put my car in reverse, and I blew reverse out of the transmission. I tried to back up too fast and the transmission gears are so light that they can't take that kind of abuse. I was just trying to get away from the situation with Harvick, and unfortunately he got to pit road before me so I pulled in behind him

"I was just going to sit there, not worry about it and let him cool his head for a second and let him figure out that we just need to go back to the garage area. Instead of him doing that, he wanted to get out of his car and wanted to fight. I knew that wasn't going to be a good situation. My choices were limited, I was either going to get punched in the face and then wait for Harvick to get back in his car for me to go or just drive through his car and push it out of the way so I could get out of there and try not to get hit or anything like that.

"I made a judgment call there, and it wasn't one of the best choices that I had, but I pushed his car out of the way on pit road and unfortunately there (were) men walking down pit road. I hate it that somebody could have gotten hurt, but I was just trying to get away from it and get back to my hauler and go on with my own business."

Harvick, who wrecked Busch's No. 18 at Homestead-Miami Speedway last year with a similar move after saying Busch had raced him "like a clown" in the season finale, was much more reticent in discussing the incident.

"Things happen," he said with a smile. "That's it. What do you do? It's racing, I guess."

What was discussed in the hauler? "Not much."

Was the feud settled?

"You saw the end," he said. "I don't have any answers for you. I'm really excited about Regan Smith, and I hate that you're not over there talking to him."

NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp emphasized the drivers were summoned by officials because of their postrace antics.

"That's all we have to say about it," said Tharp, indicating any penalties wouldn't be decided until after a weekly Tuesday competition meeting. "It was a discussion where they both aired their opinions. Be able to have them do that after the race is a good thing."

Brad Keselowski finished third (his first top five at Penske Racing), followed by Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman. Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, Jamie McMurray and Martin Truex Jr. rounded out the top 10.

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