Furniture Row Racing's Regan Smith will document his NASCAR season through a series of diary entries for SBNation.com this year.

Regan Smith's NASCAR Driver Diary

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My Busy Summer Features First Pitch At Baseball Game, First Win For A Friend

It's been awhile since my last entry, but it's been a busy summer. I'll try to catch you up on a few things.

One of the really cool things I got to do recently was throw out the first pitch at a Colorado Rockies game in Denver. Honestly, it was more nerve-wracking than running a race. I was shaking like I'd just got off a qualifying lap at Atlanta. When I was going up to the mound, I was so nervous. I was just out of my element, that was the main thing.

I can't say I threw a strike, because I'd be lying if I said that. But it was straight, and it was over the plate. I'm just not going to say how high it was.

I practiced beforehand a little bit, and it was great. It was fine – a piece of cake, simple. Then I got out there on that field and I was overwhelmed by the people and everything. It's a little bit different than throwing the ball out behind the race shop.

The reaction I got when I was introduced to the crowd was really positive. I was really surprised by how loud it was and how many people were cheering. It appeared they knew not only of NASCAR, but they knew the race team was in Denver. It didn't hurt that they showed a nice video of my win at Darlington before I came out to the mound.

After I won at Darlington and David Ragan became another first-time Sprint Cup winner in the July Daytona race, I started telling anyone who would listen that Paul Menard would be the next first-time winner.

So after he won the Brickyard 400, I looked like a genius, didn't I? Nah, I'm just kidding.

In all seriousness, though, I was so happy for Paul. He's a great friend of mine. After I realized we weren't going to have a shot to win – we were conserving fuel and ended up finishing third – seeing him up there and knowing he had a shot was the next best thing.

I came off Turn 4 and I couldn't really see what was going on up ahead of me at the finish line. I didn't know if Paul had made it or Jeff Gordon had passed him at the end. So I came on the radio and I said, "Did Paul win? Did he make it? Did he make it?"

They said, "Yeah, he made it! He won!" And you would have thought I won the race on the radio. I was screaming so loud and was so pumped up for him.

I was just so happy for him as a friend. I know what he and his family have put into trying to win at that racetrack. He's talked to me about that place before, so I knew how special it was to him. It was neat.

I wish I knew why there were so many first-time winners this year, but I don't. I think circumstances have been part of it, but the other thing we're seeing is the effect of the new car. Now that everybody is getting it scienced out and maximizing what it's capable of, it reduces the advantage of some teams. Everybody is catching up now and everybody is on a very even playing field. The days of finding that thing that made you dominant for five straight races are pretty close to gone.

At this point, there are 35 cars every week that are capable of going out and getting a top-10 finish, and it just comes down to who makes the right decisions or who stays out of the wrecks and stuff like that. Everybody is so close, that's what's breeding the kind of results we're seeing and getting different winners than we're accustomed to.

It shows how competitive this sport is. Maybe in years past, they'd say, "Oh, we're seeing so many winners because the competition level is down and there's not any of the super guys." But now, the competitive level is so high that everybody is that good.

This is the toughest NASCAR has ever been, in my opinion. That's why I still think what Jimmie Johnson has done in the past five years is so incredible.

As far as our Furniture Row Racing team goes, we've got the speed consistently now. We can go to a short track and have a top-10 car in speed; we can go to a road course, like last week, and had a car that was capable of getting a top-10. We've just got to quit beating ourselves.

At the beginning of the year, we had speed one week and maybe didn't the next week. Now we've got speed every week and just need to do the things to optimize that speed at the right time of the race. Instead of being one of those cars that loses 10 spots at the end, we've got to gain 10 spots.

A guy I look at that we need to strive to be like is Kevin Harvick. Even if he's having a bad day and they don't talk about him much – like at Watkins Glen – the next thing you know at the end of the race, he finishes sixth. So where did that come from? We need to be more like that. That's what I'm working on as a driver, and we're working on making the right calls in different situations and putting ourselves in the right position.

In regard to the rest of the year, our goal is to win some more races because the wild card is out of the picture for us – 100 percent. I've felt that way the last four weeks now. We need to consistently be running in the top 10 as much as possible going into next year. I feel like we've learned every way to give away a top-10, and we need to start learning every way to get a top-10 – even when we're having a bad day.

We've got a team that's capable of making the Chase next year. I truly believe that. We've still got some stuff to refine and we've pinpointed what we've got to get better at. Now we've got to go out and do the right things to carry momentum into next year.

Hockey season is getting ready to start. I think my Carolina Hurricanes are still going to be right on the playoff bubble again this year. I'll save my Stanley Cup prediction for next time, but I will give you a Sprint Cup prediction.

It's going to be tough to go against Jimmie again this year. He's doing the same thing he does every year. He's right there, and it's like the Jaws music is playing, you know? Carl Edwards' contract extension could change that up because it gives him some big momentum going into the Chase, and there are a lot of other guys at the top of that list who could get hot. I'll stick with Jimmie for now though.

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