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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.
Well, a lot has happened since I last wrote. Namely, we won the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway last month.
From the start of this year, I said I felt like we were going to be capable of winning this year; I said that pretty clearly, actually. I didn't expect it to happen that early, though, and I certainly didn't expect it at a place like Darlington.
That being said, everything fell in our favor and we had a fast car – we didn't just luck our way up to the front. We had worked our way up to the front the whole night and had done things right. The irony of it is, we were actually mad when that late caution came out – but the caution is what allowed us to win the race. That was a funny situation for us.
The main thing is, the Darlington win has just changed the confidence of the team. The team has gotten more confidence, I've gotten more confidence and our expectations are a lot higher now. And that's a good thing – that's what you want, because we know what we're capable of when we do everything right.
Another thing that's changed is our goals for this year. Those are completely different now. We're looking back at some of those races at the beginning of the year going, "Dang it! Son of a gun, we lost points there where maybe we had a part fail or I made a mistake or we got caught up in somebody else's wreck and we wish we had those back."
That hurts, because our main goal is now to get into the top 20 since there's an outside chance that one win could get you into the Chase. But you've got to be up there in the top 20 to even have that shot – and we could get another win. I certainly didn't think we were going to win this early, so later on in the year, we should have an even better shot at winning.
The way these races have started to play out lately, you're seeing some of the fuel mileage and strategy stuff going on. I think it's pretty well-documented at this point that if you have a car that's fast enough and you get clean air at the end of a race, you could be in good shape.
After Darlington, I did quite a bit of interviews. Quite a bit! It was pretty busy. I couldn't put an exact number on it, but I'd say it's probably close to 100 in that first week alone. In that week, I didn't have a free minute. Even though I got a lot of the same questions over and over, I didn't mind talking about the win.
By the time I got to Dover, I was happy to just have a night to sleep and just chill out. Obviously, though, you want to celebrate a little bit with your friends, so I had that to take care of one night – which seemingly ruined one night and the following day for me!
The three or four weeks after that were extremely busy, though, and even now there's a lot more stuff we're included in as a team. It kind of changes your image around the garage and amongst the media. It puts you at another level.
Another change since I last wrote is I've bought a home in Colorado. I've spent a lot of time out there working on it and getting ready. My fiancee, Megan, is going to come out there with me this week and we'll get to stay in the house for the first time. My mom is going to come help me out with some of the moving stuff, too.
We're still going to split our time between Colorado and North Carolina, because all our families are back in North Carolina. But with the Furniture Row Racing shop being in Colorado, it makes sense to spend more time there; plus, I like Colorado.
I'd go out to Colorado on my own, even if there wasn't racing out there. Fortunately for me, there is a racing reason to go out there – and it's the team I work for. Quite honestly, if I was ever in position to have a second home, that's where it would be. Some people like the beach; I like the mountains.
We don't really know what we're doing yet with our stuff and how much time we're spending in each place – we're just kind of winging it, which is not really my style. I'm a very organized person, like, "This has got to be set in stone." I like everything to have a rhythm and flow to it.
So this is closest thing I've ever done to just going somewhere and not really having a plan or knowing what's going on. I've spent enough time in Denver to know about the area, though; the only thing that might be a little awkward is going to be not having all of our stuff.
At least we've got our dogs with us. They're going to see if they can find some mountain lions to play with at some point.
Going back to the Darlington win though, it's not life-changing. Whether it's career-changing, I don't know. I think once you start winning a little more often, that might be more life-altering than one win.
But I think right now, it was cool for the team to get our first win. And it was cool for me to get my first win.
Ever since Talladega my rookie year, I looked back on that race and wondered if that was going to be my only opportunity. So to capitalize on it at Darlington and make the most of it when it was there, that was probably a bigger deal for me personally: I no longer have to look back on Talladega and go, "What if?"
There's a lot of great race car drivers who have never won at this level and probably deserved to win at this level. You look at things and think, "What is going to be my mark when I'm done here?" So that was big for me to get a win.
We don't like how this season has been going so far. A lot of things have happened that we can't change, but now we're focused on the things we can control.
Talladega was a little disappointing, but at least we didn't wreck – which is a plus. We're trying to get some momentum back and so we can start making up some of these points we've given away early in the season.
The NHL playoffs have been a good distraction lately. Most people who know me are aware I'm a huge hockey fan, and I've been glued to the playoffs for the most part. I spent a big part of the off-week watching all the games, and especially with all the Game 7s going on tonight and tomorrow, I'm pretty stoked about that. All the games have been what you'd expect from playoff hockey – and then some.
Hockey is just so fast-paced. These guys play 82 games a year, and the physical aspect of what their bodies go through is amazing. It's the equivalent of a football player, except they play 82 times a year. On top of that, everyone gets a significant amount of playing time – from the first line to the fourth line. It's just a total team sport. You've got some players that are really stars, but everyone has got to be good.
I love the Carolina Hurricanes, but since they're not in it, I just want to see good hockey. I'm sure I'll pick a side when they get to the Stanley Cup Finals – maybe because of a player I have on my fantasy team or something. But for now, I'm just enjoying the games.
Since I was focused on racing growing up, I've never actually played hockey. I skated a few times, but that's about it. I think I started go get hooked on it when I had a hockey video game on Super Nintendo – I was probably 6 or 7 years old at the time. I'd play the video game and then started watching the games on TV, too. Usually, the Buffalo Sabres or New York Rangers were on TV back home. One thing led to another, and when we moved down here to North Carolina, the Hurricanes moved down here, too.
One other person who knows her stuff when it comes to hockey is Ryan Newman's wife, Krissie. She's really into hockey; not just a casual fan, like, 'Oh, ha ha, hockey is fun.' She really understands it and knows what's going on. I don't get into any conversations with her about it, but I just know she's pretty knowledgeable.
Though I love hockey, racing is my life for the most part. On the track, we've closed up some of the gap that we'd gotten there in points, and some of these cars are within our sights. Now we need to start passing them. There's a lot of cars directly ahead of us in points where I'm like, 'Man, we out-run them every week!' We just need to start finishing better.
I don't know that we can make the Chase, but we can get back in the top 20. That needs to be the immediate goal, whether it's five, 10 or 20 races from now. And then the new "Wild Card" can come into play.
We're absolutely looking at the Wild Card as our way into the Chase, to be perfectly blunt and honest with you. We started talking about it two weeks ago. If it comes down to the end of a race and it looks like we're 10 laps short on fuel, we're in a position where we can say, 'Hey, let's go for it.' A guy who is 15th in points and leading the race might not be able to do that – he'd have to say, 'I'll take a 10th-place finish and pit right now.'
We can basically gamble on everything and see how it works out for us. If you sneak a win somewhere – or even if you just get a win normally – then suddenly you can use the Wild Card aspect and say, 'Well, now we've just got to do whatever we can to get another one.'
We're still leading the Sprint Cup Series in average starting position, but our qualifying success has been a double-edged sword. There's definitely a sense of pride when you qualify good, but we could sit on the pole for every race this year and if you don't get the results at the end of it, it doesn't matter.
The one thing our good qualifying efforts tell us is we've gotten good speed out of the race cars. You can say that for most of the races. But ultimately, you need to have the stats on the finishes – that's when they pay the money and the points. And that's what we need to focus on now.
Since I last wrote, things have definitely not gone how I wanted them to – and the main reason is we've had bad luck.
We were fast in Phoenix. We were fast in Las Vegas. At Phoenix, we got wrapped up in somebody else's problem – as did about 15 other cars – and then at Vegas, we had an engine issue. It's rare that ever happens with our Earnhardt Childress Racing motors. And at Bristol, we started off good – we had a good starting spot – but it didn't really materialize in the race like we thought it would.
You'll have stuff like that happen in the course of a long season, but you just don't want to have it all at once in the first part of the season. Unfortunately, we did. So we'll just have to start digging out of the hole.
I look at the points, but I don't really look at them from the standpoint of, "Oh, how far behind 10th are we?" Plus, I don't really understand what I'm looking at right now because of the new points system. At this point in the year, it's a new experience for all of us. You could look at it and say, "Oh my gosh, we're so far behind!" But how does that equate to last year's system? I don't really know.
Ultimately, the only thing that matters right now is finishing well – and if we finish where we've been racing most of the time, that'll be important. Other than Bristol, we've had speed everywhere.
How I deal with a bad finish just kind of depends on the circumstances. You can dwell on it, or you can forget about it, move on and focus on what's coming up next. But no matter what, I almost always work on my notes on Sunday night or first thing Monday morning after a race.
Taking notes is similar to what the crew chief and engineer do. I write down some notes to kind of serve as a capper to the weekend. I'll write things like how the car handled at a certain stage in the race, or how a certain change affected it. It's essentially just writing my thoughts down and having it to go back and look at.
A lot of times, I'll write things like, "There was a bump in Turn 1 that was messing us up." Then when we go back to a track, I re-read that and it triggers something in my brain. Then I can remember exactly the areas I had to work on, or where I was struggling last time. And hopefully, I don't struggle the next time because I know how to get around it.
By Tuesday, I'll pop in a DVD of the next track and watch last year's race to refresh my memory on how things went.
Before Bristol, the track has us introduce ourselves to the crowd. I don't get nervous about it, but last year was tough – I walked right past the microphone and didn't know where I was supposed to be going.
I kind of wanted to be creative and say something cool to the fans, but by the time it was my turn, I thought, "There's not really anything I can say that hasn't already be said by someone else." So I kept it simple.
Last Sunday was made even worse when my favorite college basketball team, Syracuse, lost in the NCAA Tournament. I had them in the Final Four.
I did a bracket this year, but I didn't actually enter a pool. I did it just for myself, for the hell of it. And I had Louisville winning it all! They lost in the first game, so I pretty much threw it out after that.
I'm a Big East Conference fan, because I watch all the Syracuse games. I don't know what's going on with the Big East teams losing – they're really not that bad. I mean, the worst team from the Big East that got in is one of the only ones left right now. So I don't know what happened there.
I've always been a Syracuse fan. Growing up near Syracuse, there's essentially no other sports. You've got the minor league baseball team and the AHL hockey team, but outside of that, the only sports to follow are at the university. Everyone always paid attention to what Syracuse was doing, and I just kind of picked up on it.
Since they're on TV so much, when I moved down South it was easy to continue following them. It's something to talk about, whether they're playing good or playing bad.
I was really bummed, because I was hyping up a possible Syracuse vs. North Carolina matchup. But...yeah...Syracuse didn't exactly do its part. So it's probably a good thing I didn't actually enter my bracket in any pools this year.
As the end of Sunday's race was getting closer, I wasn't thinking about the fact it was the Daytona 500.
I was thinking, "OK, when it gets down to it, what do we have to do to make sure we're up toward the front, and what do we have to do make sure we get the right push and the right draft at the end of the race to break out in front of these guys?"
Kurt Busch and I had both agreed we wanted to be on the bottom – through communication with our spotters – and it was just a matter of making sure we got the big push at the end.
Honestly, the racing was turning out exactly how I thought it would be. The racing was like an accordion - four two-car packs would be able to break away from the main pack, then fall back, then come back to the front.
That was all how I had it pictured. It all played out how I thought it would.
And strategy-wise, we ended up right where we wanted to be with 25 to go. We had a good situation on fuel, we were hooked back up with Kurt. I knew our two cars were good together. I was committed to sticking with him at that point. I felt like staying with Kurt was our best shot to win.
Then the wreck happened.
The whole backstraightaway deal really wasn't anybody's fault. At that point in the race, nobody lifts. You just keep pushing. The problem is, I didn't know they were pushing Kurt. So I went to slow down...and he hooked me sideways.
When I started to wreck, my first thought was, "Oh, shoot – there's a lot of cars coming straight at my door. This could be big in a second!"
The other thing was I've seen a lot of cars get turned that way on the backstretch at Daytona and get airborne, so I was hoping all four tires would stay on the ground. I thought, "I really don't want to flip today."
And then we got hit, and I thought, "Man, none of these hits felt like they were really bad." I felt like I got hit a bunch, but I didn't feel like any of them were hard, devastating blows. When I got turned back around, I thought, "You know, other than having four flat tires, everything still seems to be tracking straight."
As soon as I got the car straightened up on the back straightaway and was driving to the pits, I had already switched over to a different mindset. I switched my brain off and went into points mode. Quite honestly, after what happened to me at Talladega in 2008, it's a lot easier for me to say, "Alright. Let's just focus on getting a good run now."
I figured after the race, I'd have my chance to go, "Damn, we were so close. Woe is me." But it was pretty easy to switch over to looking at the big picture.
A year ago, I wouldn't have been able to do that. I had learned a lot last year about managing emotions – the guys have had to work hard with me about that. And two years ago, I would have totally self-imploded inside the race car.
So by the time I hit pit road to have my team look at the damage, I was already fine. I was over it. It's funny, I was going down the back straightaway and my crew chief, Pete Rondeau, came on the radio to give me the usual pep talk: "Hey, get your head in the game. We need to get points here."
And I came back on the radio and said, "Pete, I'm fine. I'm already focused on what we have to do here."
When it was all over, we finished seventh. Never once did I think we were going to salvage a top-10 finish out of it after the wreck. That was just an added bonus. I had figured if we got out of there with a top-15 after the wreck, I'd be happy.
After the race, I got out of the car and then I was able to think, "Son of a gun! Look how close we were here." I let a little of the disappointment sink in at that point. But Monday morning was a whole new day, and I was watching Phoenix tapes and looking at notes for Phoenix already.
Daytona was my first career top-10, and that was cool. But I got zero enjoyment out of that stat, to be honest with you. I've been in positions to get top-10s before and they just didn't happen because of circumstances. Getting a top-10 wasn't that big of a deal in comparison to having a chance to win the Daytona 500.
You might go your whole career and never be in that good of a position to win that race again. More than anything, that's what you think about some of these guys who have been trying for 20 or 30 years.
Trevor Bayne's team is a prime example. He won it in his first try, but his crew chief Donnie Wingo has been trying for about 30 years. So it can go either way – you can go 30 years and not win it, or you can do it your first time and win it. It's just one of those things where you don't ever know if you're going to have that shot again.
It was cool to see Trevor win. I felt like even back at tire testing, he had one of the best cars down here. As we progressed along, I told my guys: "Man, if he keeps his nose clean, that car could win this race. That thing is that strong."
The main thing was going to be how fast he picked everything up – and he picked it up quickly. He got the respect of the veterans right away, with Jeff Gordon helping him in the 150s there.
Trevor was deserving. He had a fast car, and he put it in position all day where he needed to be. I was happy for him, but the coolest part for me about that was seeing the Wood Brothers win again.
First of all, they had the throwback David Pearson paint scheme, which was really cool. The neatest thing was how they reacted after winning.
Instead of thinking, "Alright, we just won all this money!" their first thought was, "We get to add races and go race more now!" To me, that's really cool. That's a true racer.
Overall, Daytona was great. We had a good week-and-a-half down there and showed what this Furniture Row Racing team is capable of. But now we go to Phoenix and start the other part of the season.
We've got a good start points-wise to the season – we're sixth – so that's good. Last year, we were in a big hole. Now I think we can go out there and race and see where we stack up in two or three weeks.
Editor's note: This season, Furniture Row Racing driver Regan Smith will be writing exclusive diary entries for SBNation.com. This is his first entry.
Let's get this out of the way first: I'm not David Ragan.
Because of the similarities in our names, people confuse us all the time. He's David Ragan; I'm Regan (pronounced "REE-gan") Smith.
I drive for Furniture Row Racing, which is based out of Colorado. We've got a bad-ass team here, but I think because we race out of Denver and we're not in the mainstream of the Charlotte area, people don't realize this team is the real deal.
We're not working out of a four-car garage at somebody's house in Colorado. We've got all the parts and pieces we need, and we don't lack for anything. We do all the things every other team does, but sometimes we get confused with the teams that are just...there.
We're competitors. And in the second half of the season last year, we out-ran a lot of very big teams on a weekly basis.
We notice it. And slowly but surely, maybe other people will start noticing it, too.
I think the main thing for you to know about me personally is I'm probably no different than anyone else, really. I'm just a quiet, shy person for the most part – it just so happens that I love racing and I'm fortunate I get to do that for a living.
I don't come from any special background. I don't come from a family that's been in racing their whole lives or anything like that. I come from a normal working family that was fortunate enough to be successful.
Both my parents came from next to nothing and have worked their butts off their entire lives to make a good living for our family. That put them in a situation where they could afford to put me in race cars and let me try to race.
They were always race fans, and my dad even owned cars at a young age. My parents originally met at a racetrack. So while they both had interest in the sport, that's where the racing roots stop.
Riding with them on the highway, I'm pretty sure I got my driving ability from my mom. She's pretty much a nutcase on the road, so that dispels the notion that you always get your driving ability from your dad.
For me to get to where I am right now with Furniture Row Racing, there have been a lot of ups and downs. But I think that all helps mold who you are and helps you find your place in the sport.
Coming into this season, it's the most confident I've personally ever been. We're kind of flying under the radar right now – and I'm happy about that. Toward the end of the year, our performances started getting noticed, but people forgot about us again in the offseason.
And that's fine. You can hit things a little harder that way.
The best thing is, we have the same personnel we had last year. We had one guy who decided he wanted to get off the road this year, but outside of that, we're essentially the same race team.
All of that stuff has really boosted my confidence. This is the first season where I've gone into the year and felt like I could really make an impact on the season. By the end of last year, what we were able to start doing and accomplishing was right around what we were shooting for – so now the goals are loftier and heavier.
I'm glad we're going to be able to be more aggressive on the track this year. Sometimes, your driving personality and what you do on the racetrack doesn't always mesh. For the past couple years, we've been in a situation where we needed to finish races and have solid results – not wreck cars by doing anything too stupid or taking many chances.
Even in 2008, my rookie year, we were in a bind in the points situation and you couldn't risk anything. But coming into this year, we're not going to have to worry about the top 35 at all – we're going to be worried about the racing.
You know, when you're running 25th to 30th, there's no reason to wreck race cars. There's no reason to make a move that's questionable and take somebody out.
But if you're running 10th, then it's a little more understandable if you make a move and mess up or make a mistake – you can say, "We were going for it." So be it.
My whole career, I've been very aggressive. Even back in my Nationwide days, I used to tear stuff up all the time. But I hear people say, "Man, when you came to Cup, you don't tear stuff up anymore and you finish races."
Well, that's not really done by design – it's just been the circumstances of how I've had to race. This year, we're going to be in situations more often where you can go for that aggression.
Instead of giving and taking with guys and being polite, you can do more taking. I think that's going to show up more this year.
And I'm excited about that.
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