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Regan Smith would seem to have no real reason to be as excited as he is.
It is Tuesday afternoon and the Sprint Cup Series racer is stuck in his hotel room, kept there by the same constant rain that washed out what was supposed to be a day of tire testing at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
He is barely 48 hours removed from an engine detonation that ended his day at Talladega, a track where he is always considered a dark-horse candidate for the win. The resulting 40th-place finish left him stuck at 27th in the points standings after 10 races.
Smith should be down in the dumps. But he's not. He's too fired up about the next stop on his itinerary.
"I can't wait to get down to Darlington," says the 28-year-old, looking ahead to Saturday night's Southern 500. "And you know the first thing I'm going to do when I get there? I'm walking down pit road to find my parking spot."
He's talking about the Darlington Raceway's Winner's Alley, one of auto racing's most exclusive pieces of real estate. It's a line of lifetime reserved parking spots, running along the six-plus-decade-old speedway's pit road. The spaces are permanently held for those who have won races at The Track Too Tough To Tame.
The signs are bolted to the chain-link fence that borders NASCAR's oldest, most storied garage area. Richard Petty David Pearson Junior Johnson Ned Jarrett Jeff Gordon Regan Smith.
"The trophy is even more amazing," Smith says of the massive Darlington Raceway award that sits on a coffee table in the middle of a living room in his still-new home (he's having a pedestal built). "It has the faces of all the Southern 500 winners and sometimes I just look at it and go, 'What the heck am I doing on there?'"
Smith earned his sign on the fence and face on the trophy one year ago, when he pulled off the most unlikely victory of a decidedly unpredictable season, a year that produced 18 different winners in 36 events. He entered the 2011 Mother's Day weekend as a racer with no wins, no top-5s and only one top-10 in 105 previous starts. Yet he pulled off a gutsy, charge-defending win in NASCAR's oldest speedway race and arguably it's most difficult event. And he did it driving for Furniture Row Racing, a relatively unknown single-car team based out of Denver.
No, not Denver, N.C. Denver, as in the new home of Peyton Manning.
"Did the win change my life? I don't know if it's changed me all that much as a racer. It didn't satisfy me. I still want to win 20 more of them," he said. Then he recalls the race that many still believe should have been his first win, a victory that was taken away on a yellow line technicality at Talladega in 2008. "That was always the number one question from fans, to bring up the Talladega deal. It was like that for years. Now they don't want to ask me about that anymore. They want to talk about winning at Darlington."
Then he laughs, and adds, "And I sure don't get called David Ragan as much as I used to."
Such is life in the middle of the garage. Where drivers fight for whatever identity they can muster in a world dominated by the handful of superstars who get to park their rigs closest to the NASCAR office hauler each weekend. As Smith has learned over the past year, the quickest way to steal any spotlight away from the perennial title contenders is so simple yet so difficult.
"Winning doesn't hurt. And I think people respected how we won," he says, referring to the way he continuously held off the frantic advances of eventual championship runner-up Carl Edwards. "Within our Furniture Row team, we felt like we had momentum coming into the year. That win proved it. And we really thought that momentum would carry on into 2012."
We started off like a team that would be competing for that 10th, 11th, 12th spots in the Chase. But a few weeks don't go our way and the next thing you know, you're having to dig out of this hole.” -- Regan Smith
It hasn't. A season that started with solid if unspectacular runs over the first three weeks tripped over a pit-road speeding penalty at Auto Club Speedway and has been stuck in a slow decline ever since. Furniture Row has struggled along with technical partner and engine supplier Richard Childress Racing. Even the early bright spot of qualifying has fizzled. Smith started inside the top six three times over the first four weeks. Over the past six, his average starting position has been 23rd.
"We started off like a team that would be competing for that 10th, 11th, 12th spots in the Chase," Smith said. "But a few weeks don't go our way and the next thing you know, you're having to dig out of this hole."
Smith, who is endearingly low key off the track, has worked to curb what he calls "hot-headed frustration" on it. Instead of trying to motivate his team through barking or cheering, he's chosen to focus on sharpening his ability to communicate to his crew and engineers precisely what his Chevy is doing beneath him. He's at the Furniture Row Racing shop more often (that new house he bought is in Denver) and he's becoming more aggressive with information -- just as his team is becoming more aggressive with how it will attack races from here on out.
"Now we're in a position where we have to adjust our thinking a little bit," he said. "We need to start going for wins, taking more chances like we were doing last year. But all the while working on things that can help us long term, too. Meanwhile, if we win a couple of races, it would solve a lot of problems."
The hope was that Talladega would spark a spring turnaround. That didn't happen. So now they're eyeing a rebound at the place where last year's magic materialized. Smith says just coming through the Darlington Raceway tunnel will bring an automatic air of confidence for himself and the entire team. Confidence they desperately need.
"Whether I win a hundred more races or no more races, walking into Darlington is always going to be special," says the defending champ. "But it was always special to me. The first time I walked in there, it felt like Wrigley Field. It's just so rich in history. It's everywhere you look."
And everywhere you look, there's Regan Smith, from the Winner's Alley parking lot to that big ol' trophy on the living room coffee table.
"Every face on the trophy has the years they won underneath them," he said. "I like seeing that 2011 under mine. Now let's see if we can add a 2012."