Driver Regan Smith and his team celebrate victory in NASCAR Nationwide Series race on Saturday at Daytona International Speedway. (Jeff Siner / MCT)
Daytona Beach, Fla. — Regan Smith had the checkered flag in sight at Daytona a year ago and a freight train of cars in his rearview mirror.
He moved high to throw a block on Brad Keselowski (Rochester Hills) and it backfired badly. The desperate attempt to preserve the win triggered a 12-car accident, Kyle Larson’s car sailed into the fence and debris from the wreck injured nearly 30 fans.
It was a racing accident, nobody’s fault. But Smith was racked with guilt.
So it was sweet redemption Saturday when he nipped Keselowski at the finish line to win the Nationwide Series opener — finally, a year later — at Daytona International Speedway.
“I think it hurt him deeply that the fans were involved in the accident,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who along sister, Kelley and Rick Hendrick owns the JR Motorsports Chevrolet that Smith drove to victory.
“I think that he personally and privately (bore) some responsibility for his involvement in the crash, just being in the crash, to have someone in the grandstands get hurt had to affect him tremendously. That was definitely probably one of the toughest things he went through personally as a driver.”
Smith said he went to dinner with Earnhardt after the accident and leaned on his boss.
“I’m fortunate that I’ve got a boss who has been in a lot of different situations in this sport and understands a lot of different things over the years in Dale,” Smith said. “He just basically said ‘You’ve got to shake it off, it’s racing and no fault of anybody. Circumstances sometimes happen. He offered up a lot of good advice in that situation. It did bother me. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t.”
Nothing bothered Smith on Saturday.
He beat Keselowski by 0.013 for the second-closest finish at Daytona International Speedway and seventh closest in series history. It was the 300th victory for the Hendrick Motorsports engine shop.
Keselowski said last year’s crash-marred finish never entered his mind as he plotted his strategy over the closing laps. Smith and Keselowski raced side-by-side at the front of the pack over the final two overtime laps. They were door-to-door exiting the final turn and Smith edged him at the line.
“I’m not that smart and I’ve got a terrible memory,” Keselowski said of not worrying about a repeat of last year.
Trevor Bayne finished third, followed by Kyle Busch, winner of Friday night’s Truck Series race, and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Elliott Sadler.
Brendan Gaughan was sixth and followed by Ty Dillon.
Earnhardt Jr., who was 11th, ran into the back of Joe Nemechek after the finish. He said he was being pushed by Kyle Larson and traffic slowed too quickly. It caused heavy damage to Nemechek and Ryan Sieg’s cars that Earnhardt said he’d pay to repair.
“We were slowing down. I was looking all around trying to figure out where everybody was at,” he said. “Totally my fault. Really wasn’t paying attention. I hate it for Joe and those guys ‘cause they don’t need to be tearing up race cars.”
NASCAR issued its first drafting penalty of the season 86 laps into race when James Buescher was called for push-drafting Keselowski. Buescher’s car seemed to be under the rear of Keselowski’s car for several seconds, which violates NASCAR’s ban on drafting.
NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said the penalty was called because Buescher appeared to be the aggressor regardless of what the television angle showed.
Keselowski said the penalty “set the tone for the rest of the race as far as what guys were looking at for driving their cars.”
Shift in thinking
Kyle Busch’s thrilling move in the final few hundred feet of the Truck Series season opener led to his 99th win outside NASCAR’s top series.
The victory infuriated many fans. NASCAR heard them loud and clear.
NASCAR said Saturday it is looking at potentially limiting the number of second- and third-tier event Sprint Cup regulars can run during the season. Officials have already talked about a potential rules adjustments, and Busch’s win Friday night surely will lead to more discussions.
Maybe even a change.
“We’re definitely aware of the fan messaging we get,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s senior vice president of racing operations. “There’s a balance, especially talking to the tracks, of having a Cup driver or two in the Trucks or Nationwide. … We have had discussions with the race teams about ownership and should Cup drivers get points and we’ve looked at should they be limited in the number of races.
“It’s something we are really studying.”
Busch has 63 wins in the Nationwide Series and 36 more in the Truck Series. Busch and fellow Sprint Cup driver Keselowski own Truck teams, and NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. owns a Nationwide team.
And with sponsorship key to funding those operations, corporations often agree to sponsorship deals with the guarantee that the driver/owners will get behind the wheel in a handful of races or more.
Tracks, television rights holders and NASCAR also all benefit from the draw of racing’s top drivers.
Of course, that usually means young and upcoming drivers get overlooked or left out of the car.
Busch seemed to welcome the outrage over his victory.
“It’s me in the Truck Series,” Busch said Friday night when asked why fans were so upset with his win. “People don’t like it. I’m stealing candy from a baby. ‘Til the rules are changed or everybody else grows up and can beat me, then we’re racing.”
Busch, who won five of 11 Truck races last year and 12 of 26 Nationwide races, added he doesn’t care what fans think.
“I just do what I’m supposed to do,” he said. “I have a Truck team for a reason. If I didn’t drive it in some races, it wouldn’t be in existence. … Everything in life happens for a reason. Sometimes people aren’t happy with the way life treats them. That’s their problem. I’m pretty blessed and happy to be where I’m at. I appreciate the things I’ve got going for me.”
“America’s most patriotic rock band” performed America’s most patriotic song at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday.
And the reviews were mixed.
Madison Rising’s rendition of the national anthem had a few drivers chuckling and some fans shaking their heads before the Nationwide Series season opener.
“Well, I wish they would just sing the damn song,” Keselowski said after the race. “That is my reaction.”
The band’s version of “The Star Spangled Banner,” which has more than 5 million views on YouTube, was shortened for television purposes. Nonetheless, the guitar-heavy interpretation seemed to catch NASCAR off guard. Keselowski and Danica Patrick had puzzled looks on their faces near the end of it.
“Yes, we took some liberties,” lead singer Dave Bray said before the performance. “But we were already taking some liberties with it musically and melodically. We wanted to make it a rock song people could sing and enjoy. The reverence is still there, but it has sort of taken on the death march in a way. It’s very sullen and sung in a very sullen way. We thought it should be more of a celebratory rock anthem.”
Bray said the full version lasts about 4 minutes. The band, which performed a pre-race concert before the 2013 Nationwide finale in Homestead, agreed to cut it in half for the race.
“We knew it would be a door closer for us if it wasn’t accepted by NASCAR,” Bray said.
Track President Joie Chitwood III defended his decision to bring in Madison Rising.
“They’ve played that rendition in the 2012 and 2013 Military Bowls,” Chitwood said. “They’ve gotten very positive reviews socially and digitally in terms of that rendition. The fact that they played the Military Bowl was pretty impressive, but our fans are very opinionated and they make sure that they comment, and that’s their right.”