** Sometimes racing rewards us with the unexpected, the unanticipated.
Something happens that is so far beyond the limits of our belief that we really can’t fathom it. We can only can only stand there in amazement, somewhat slack-jawed as we say to ourselves and anyone else who cares to listen, “I don’t believe what I just saw.”
We had such a moment in the Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington. For years it has been one of NASCAR’s most prominent and venerated races. It’s the oldest held on an asphalt track. It’s conducted on a 1.366-mile layout that is considered the toughest in all of stock car racing.
It is a race that has been won by the likes of David Pearson, Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and other giants of the sport. Journeymen and, essentially, nobodies do not win it.
That’s because it was won by Regan Smith – yes, the same Regan Smith who is part of an underfunded, one-car team, which has 64 employees, uses a pit crew from Stewart-Haas Racing, engines from Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing and chassis from Richard Childress Racing.
It’s the same Regan Smith who has routinely began regarded as, at best, an also-ran in any race he’s entered.
And, perhaps, the same Regan Smith many of us regarded as a nobody. Trust me, after Darlington he is somebody special, indeed.
“I’m not supposed to do this,” said the 27-year-old Smith as he choked up with tears in victory lane. “I’ve never even had a top five.”
At Darlington, Smith wasn’t handed anything. He earned it.
He gambled and stayed on track when most of the leaders pitted for tires with 10 laps remaining. He told us later that the strategy was one he hoped crew chief Pete Rondeau would adopt.
Smith appeared to be a sitting duck. Behind him on the restart was Carl Edwards, who had been a strong as nine rows of garlic throughout the trace and, unlike Smith, was on fresh tires.
Smith spun his tires on the restart but held the lead. He caught a bit of a break when Brad Keselowski wedged himself between Smith and Edwards.
He caught another when he bobbled – only to have Edwards do the same thing.
Despite his newer tires, Edwards could never reach Smith, who managed to keep his Chevrolet in the fresh air.
Smith led Edwards, the points leader, over the green-white-checkered finish and in so doing, put his name alongside those of the sport’s greats.
Smith’s accomplishment was not lost on others. Among those who congratulated him afterward were Kurt Busch, Greg Biffile and Edwards, who said that if he couldn’t win it was good that Smith did.
Smith is the 2008 Sprint Cup rookie of the year who has gained some notoriety of late because of excellent qualifying efforts.
But he’s seldom, if ever, been considered a victory contender. Everything seems to have worked against him – a small team based in Denver, Colo., of all places, and one that has never been given any chance against the sport’s powerhouses, like Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Childress Racing and the like.
Smith, however, came close to victory prior to Darlington. In 2008, he passed Tony Stewart for what appeared to be a win at Talladega until NASCAR took it away because Smith went below the yellow, out-of-bounds, line.
This victory will not be taken away from Smith.
“I’ll be honest with you,” said Smith, who earned his first NASCAR victory and admittedly, first of any kind that he can remember. “When I walked to the car today, I literally thought we could win the race. I think that every week when we walk to the car. The difference was this week, we did.
“I can’t believe his. It’s too cool.”
What Smith has given us, and NASCAR, is yet another unanticipated moment when an underdog proves his mettle.
We saw it in Daytona this year when young Trevor Bayne shocked, and pleased, everyone with his victory in the 500 – which restored immeasurable luster to the tarnished, yet venerated, team known as Wood Brothers Racing.
When you think about it, isn’t to have someone succeed despite odds and adversity a true essence and beauty of sports?
Of course it is.
** Now we move from the sublime to the ridiculous.
It’s too bad that with his victory, Smith had to share the limelight, even in the slightest, with Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch.
Truth is that after the Southern 500, most of the talk and TV highlights will be about these two.
They engaged in some bumping and grinding on the track and that carried over a postrace confrontation in which Harvick took a couple of swings at Busch as the two stopped post-race on the track, just above pit road.
Look, I’ll be the first to tell you fans and media alike enjoy driver dust-ups. If nothing else, they smack of the good ol’ days of NASCAR, when competitors settled issues among themselves with fists, tire irons or maybe even a .38.
And there’s nothing wrong with venting, if for no other reason than that given by Tony Stewart, who said that blowing off steam never fixed a car, but it often made a driver feel better.
Hope Busch and Harvick feel better because they certainly did themselves no service.
When it comes to incidents between drivers, NASCAR has tried extremely hard to let the issues be settled among themselves.
Doesn’t always work, as was made clear in the latest episode of Juan Pablo Montoya vs. Ryan Newman.
However, when NASCAR does decide to act that’s when a team can potentially suffer, especially if the sanctioning body responds with loss of points, probation, etc.
When Montoya seemed to show no signs of perceived over aggressiveness in the Southern 500, reportedly NASCAR conveyed its dislike.
Montoya retreated into a shell and was a non-entity for the remainder of the race. Didn’t serve him well in points.
As for Busch-Harvick, we don’t yet know if NASCAR is going to take the matter into its own hands. But you can bet the farm it will.
That’s because when Harvick decided to take a poke at Busch, Harvick’s unattended car rushed across pit road and slammed into the inside pit wall.
That car could have hit any number of people or, worse, pinned someone against the wall.
NASCAR may be relenting when it comes to driver vs. driver, but anytime their actions threaten the well being of others, the sanctioning body wastes no time in judgment.
They may not have been intentional, but Harvick’s actions posed a serious danger on pit road. This is something NASCAR will not tolerate.
I would be stunned if Harvick does not receive a rather stiff punishment sometime this week – maybe Busch, too, but certainly Harvick.
It’s just one example of how a confrontation can get out of hand and become, in the end, much more than for what a driver bargained.