Regan Smith's Long Road To First NASCAR Victory Lane Ends At Darlington

If trying to find a NASCAR ride is like dating, then Regan Smith has been rejected, kicked to the curb and had his heart broken enough times to say, 'The heck with this – I'm going to become a monk.'

Somehow, though, he persevered. Smith kept knocking on doors and sending love letters to teams, asking for a chance. And, on Saturday night, his first NASCAR Victory Lane date came from an unlikely source: The 'Lady in Black.'

Smith's road to Victory Lane at Darlington Raceway has been frustrating and long, often with little light at the end of the tunnel. That he even got there at all after numerous setbacks is nothing short of incredible. He's had only a tenuous hold on every ride in his career, and more than once had his job yanked out from under him.

They say NASCAR is a sport of highs and lows, but forgive Smith if he was left wondering when exactly he'd stop falling off a cliff after climbing an ant hill.

It all started with his very first Cup opportunity when, in 2007, Smith was Mark Martin's young protegé at Ginn Racing. The veteran Martin and youngster Smith split the No. 01 car (the Army-sponsored ride that almost won the Daytona 500 that year) and when Sterling Marlin was booted from the Waste Management car that June, the team told Smith he would have a full-time ride starting the following week.

This whole moving-up-the-ladder business was easy. Life was good.

But then, before Smith even made his first start in the new "full-time" ride, Ginn suddenly merged with Dale Earnhardt Inc. The points from Smith's car were assigned to Paul Menard, and the DEI bosses put Aric Almirola with Martin –which left Smith out in the cold.

It was a cruel turn of events. Smith had gone from being told he was promoted to a full-time Cup ride to being jobless – all within the span of a week.

A couple months later, though, things began to look up again. DEI signed Smith to a full-time ride for the following season, allowing him to race the 2008 season for Rookie of the Year honors.

But from the mid-point of the season, it was clear Smith's team was doomed. There was no sponsorship for the following year, and Smith was going to be out of a job again.

Suddenly, Smith put forth a great drive at Talladega Superspeedway that October and crossed the finish line in first place. It was perhaps going to be a job-saving move; maybe the team could suddenly get sponsorship after a dramatic win.

NASCAR, though, deemed Smith's last-second pass to be illegal. Not only was the win awarded to Tony Stewart instead, but the penalty dropped Smith to 18th place – denying him of his first career top-10 finish.

Incredibly, Smith never finished in the top 10 "officially" until this season; his first top-five ever was on Saturday night. And, quite frankly, there were no guarantees Smith would someday find redemption and get to Victory Lane for real.

So how did he end up doing burnouts at the track "Too Tough To Tame?"

After Smith's DEI ride went away, he accepted a part-time Sprint Cup job with Furniture Row Racing – a half-season deal in 2009. He hoped the Colorado-based team would return to a full schedule eventually, but that was no sure thing based on the trend of NASCAR teams cutting back their number of race dates.

Fortunately for Smith, he only had to wait a year. The team ran full-time in 2010, and Smith knew he finally had an opportunity to show what he could do.

But the team was without much success; Smith had only four top-15 finishes all season, and he privately wondered whether Furniture Row would fire him.

It didn't. Furniture Row stuck with Smith, and Smith stuck with Furniture Row. The driver showed more potential than ever this season – his qualifying average was the best in NASCAR heading into Darlington – and that potential finally turned into a sweet, euphoric, long-awaited win on Saturday night.

Now, no matter what other setbacks may await Smith in his career – and with his luck, you never know – the 27-year-old's perseverance and determination to succeed in NASCAR has resulted in at least one thing: Smith's face is on the Southern 500 trophy.

Related: Check out Regan Smith's SBNation.com driver diary

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