DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- As one precocious wave of talent graduated last season from the Nationwide Series to Sprint Cup, another has replaced it. That's the prime directive of NASCAR's top-tier developmental series. But it has not always been its reality.
Gone is the anticipation of the arrival and performance of 23-year-old Austin Dillon, who won his first Nationwide title, and Kyle Larson, 21, now replaced by the same expectations for Ty Dillon, 21, and 18-year-old Chase Elliott.
Wonderful stuff. But Regan Smith, 30, an admitted "late bloomer," is hopeful that a year after his bid for a first championship eroded amid midsummer mistakes, his moment is finally here.
"The expectation to win has always been there, but this year it just feels a little different," said Smith who enters his second season with JR Motorsports with Elliott as a teammate. "I don't know how to describe it other than it feels more ready."
Smith led Nationwide regulars with two wins last season, and held the points lead for 10 straight weeks after winning the spring race at Talladega Superspeedway. He fell out of the top spot permanently, however, after finishing 13th at Chicago and was relegated to a third-place finish in the final standings, 72 points behind champion Austin Dillon after finishing 12th or worse in the final seven races.
"I think obviously last year looked like it could have been [a championship season], too, and there were things that happened in the middle of the season and we let it get away from us," Smith said. "But with that said, I feel really good about where I am as a driver, where I am as a team with the people who are surrounding me and having that one year back under my belt."
The JR Motorsports organization that will field the No. 7 Chevrolet for Smith and the No. 9 for Elliott appears stronger, or at least evolved from the one Smith joined in November 2012. Smith had made 171 Sprint Cup starts, winning at Darlington in 2011 for Furniture Row Racing, but he was replaced by Kurt Busch for the final six races of the 2012 season. He returned to the Nationwide Series with a JRM team attempting to focus on one full-season campaign after fielding cars for Danica Patrick and Cole Whitt around various side projects the previous season. The team also had deepened the influence of Hendrick Motorsports, from which it leases engines and chassis.
- JR Motorsports (@JRMotorsports) February 11, 2014
"We were going through a transition phase at JR Motorsports, doing things a lot differently than maybe they had done in the past and trying new things and working toward the future," Smith said.
So was Smith. He won the final Nationwide race of the 2012 season -- JRM's first in 78 races -- and launched into 2013 with an improving program. That didn't necessarily make it a program prepared to win a championship, he said.
"I think the biggest thing I've learned from the mistakes I made last year, I hadn't run, myself, personally, in a point situation maybe since '06 or '07 in the Nationwide Series and that got cut short because the team [Ginn Racing] got shut down," he said. "Since then, Cup-side, I really haven't been the points battles like I was there. And you forget how to points-battle and be mentally tough with it when it comes time."
That became apparent in the midsummer, he said. Smith led Sam Hornish Jr. by 58 points after winning at Michigan on June 15, but a 32nd-place finish at Road America and a 30th at Kentucky had winnowed the margin to eight points in two races. Smith recalls the math with painful precision.
"We lost a lot of points," he said. "We got caught up in an accident at Road America, running good. Had a part malfunction at Kentucky, a part, fluke part-type deal. Five-cent part. Typical 5-cent part costs you more than anything else. That's what it was."
From there, Smith said, his team pressed. It worked for two weeks as eighth-place finishes at Daytona and Loudon, N.H., allowed him to hold the points lead for two more weeks, but Hornish vaulted past with a second-place finish at Chicago. Smith produced just four top-5s in the final 15 races and faded.
"We lost all those points quick, and we still had the lead and I think the mentality, was, 'OK, we've got to get some of these back' instead of just being relaxed and doing the things that we had done all year long," he said. "And we started pressing and I started pressing some things as a driver. I started making some mistakes I had not made earlier in the year. As a team I started doing stuff maybe I hadn't done earlier in the year that wasn't smart. And we didn't see it until it was too late and work on it until it was too late.
"Pitting at the wrong time. Running out of fuel somewhere. It's all simple stuff. We had the speed all year -- the speed never went away. It was the small, little mental stuff."
Gaining the experience to master it might help him hold off that next newcomer this time.