Race Weekend Central

Regan Smith Uses Pit Strategy to Take 2011 Southern 500 Win at Darlington

DARLINGTON, S.C. – The Track Too Tough To Tame lived up to its nickname Saturday night (May 7), providing as much action off the track as on it. Frayed tempers, bent-up racecars and a fresh coat of black Darlington stripes coated the 1.366-mile oval by the finish.

Who knew in the midst of all that, one of the toughest places to race in NASCAR would find a soft spot for the underdog.

Regan Smith, using pit strategy to jump into the lead on lap 360 held on with old tires to score an improbable victory in the 62nd running of Sprint Cup’s Southern 500. Surviving a green-white-checkered finish, Smith started on the inside of the front row with Carl Edwards to his outside on 25-lap newer right side tires. Leading 57 laps on the day, it seemed Edwards was all but certain to take control; however, Smith received a push from Brad Keselowski to clear the No. 99, then drove his heart out with his underdog, single-car No. 78 Chevy to keep Edwards behind him for the final two circuits.

“The tires hooked up good,” said Smith, literally in shock after the event. “When we cleared Carl going into [turn] 1, I thought, ‘That’s good, at least we’ll finish second in this thing, I won’t have to worry about any of the other guys on fresh tires.’ When he didn’t catch me at the white flag and I still had a car length gap, I thought, I’m going to run another qualifying lap here, we might have a chance at this thing.”

He wasn’t kidding. Off of turn 2 on that lap, Smith nearly lost his car, making slight contact with the outside wall. He still led the No. 99 into turn 3, though, and for one of the few times all evening actually washed up the track, which inadvertently took the air off of Edwards’s car and allowed Smith to hold him off through the turn and back to the checkered flag.

“I hit the fence at turn 2. How hard was it? I thought I hit it hard, anyways,” Smith claimed. “Never checked it up. Sailed off into three, drove it deeper than I wanted to. I got tight in the middle. But I saw he drove off pretty deep, which I expected him to do. He wasn’t able to make the run and we won the Southern 500. That’s pretty awesome.”

Smith, who was running sixth heading towards the finish, benefitted by a call NASCAR made to throw the yellow for Jeff Burton‘s blown engine. With the car excelling on longer runs, crew chief Pete Rondeau, in victory lane for the first time after a failed run as Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s head wrench in 2005, approved the call for the No. 78 to stay out.

“I wasn’t too nervous with him doing it,” Rondeau said. “Generally you get a guy with the drive and the desire to do this, they get to the front, even if they can just sniff it, they’re going to drive the wheels off of it.”

Edwards fought hard, but it was clear especially on the GWC the biggest obstacle proved to be old rival Keselowski. His actions on the inside left the No. 99 fighting for second, giving Smith the distance needed to scoot out front and take control.

“I knew that I could time a run on that last restart and give Regan a good push,” Keselowski said. “Carl [Edwards] was really fast behind me. I ended up giving him (Smith) a huge push into turn 1 and we hooked up and set sail. I’m really happy for Regan. I wanted to make sure that if I couldn’t win, he did. A win for the underdogs tonight, that’s for sure.”

“I definitely underestimated that restart a little bit,” added Edwards. “I didn’t want to lose that way. Man, I really felt like that was our race to win. But that’s NASCAR racing. As upset as I am to have lost that race, I’m happy for Regan and his accomplishment. But, man, I’ll run that one back a few times in my head.”

Officials will also have a few replays to run through for possible penalties after some late-race contact between Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick sparked a post-race fracas. On the restart from the Burton caution, the racing got fast and furious; Clint Bowyer made it three-wide coming out of turn 4 on lap 365 after Busch and Harvick made contact.

That can’t work at the Lady In Black, with teammates Harvick and Bowyer connecting to push Bowyer’s No. 33 into the inside wall, a wreck which set up the green-white-checkered finish. But it was what happened next that surprised onlookers, Busch irritated by the racing and hooking Harvick into the outside wall to ensure the No. 29 was out of contention for the race win.

During the cool-down period Busch and Harvick exchanged pleasantries, ultimately ending up parked nose-to-tail on pit road with Harvick’s car in front. Harvick climbed from his car and moved toward Busch’s, at which time Busch used his car to push Harvick’s out of the way and ultimately into the inside pit wall before driving on to the garage.

After Busch got out of his car and went into the hauler, the crew of Harvick showed up to explain their feelings to the crew for Busch and the NASCAR officials in the area were forced to maintain order. In the end, both Harvick and Busch were both issued invitations to report to the NASCAR hauler before leaving the premises.

“Obviously we were racing hard and doing what we had to do there at the end and things happen,” claimed Harvick, who when asked if things were settled between the two drivers had a telling response: “You saw the end.”

“Just uncalled for and just unacceptable racing,” said Busch. “It’s in the last couple laps, but I gave him room off of [turn] 2 and I didn’t get the room. Just real unfortunate. We tore up a few good cars there.”

Kahne started the race on the pole with a new track record speed and assumed command when the green flag dropped, swapping it with mostly Ryan Newman and Edwards for the first 127 laps. Then, during the race’s longest green-flag run of the day it was Kyle Busch who came to the front, pacing the field for 78 circuits until a loose right-rear wheel forced him to make an extra stop on lap 205.

See also
Kasey Kahne Wins 2011 Southern 500 Pole at Darlington With New Track Record

Edwards took the top spot when Busch pitted for the rest of that stint until a yellow flag for Jimmie Johnson‘s second spin of the day. As the race resumed, Edwards was once again in the lead over Kahne and Harvick when David Ragan and Brian Vickers got together off of turn 2 on lap 231, peeling the left side of Vickers’s car open like a sardine can.

Action resumed on lap 236 as Harvick grabbed the top spot from Edwards for four laps until Marcos Ambrose and Joey Logano got together on the front straight, sending Logano into the inside wall and ultimately the garage for repairs. The race resumed with Harvick still out front for the next 38 laps when the caution flew yet again for debris on the backstretch. After pit stops, it was Kahne who reasserted himself at the front of the pack until a flurry of green-flag pit stops again took place.

After most of the other lead-lap cars pitted, Kahne and Edwards entered the pit lane side-by-side with Kahne leading Edwards off pit road. However, Edwards passed him on lap 341 and was seemingly in control until Burton’s engine expired, setting up the pit strategy that pushed Smith to the front and ultimately determined the winner.

Kahne did hold on to finish fourth, while Newman rounded out the top-five performers. As for Smith, the Darlington triumph was his first victory in 105 Sprint Cup starts and the first for Furniture Row Racing owner Barney Visser in six seasons at the Cup level. The victory also marked Smith’s first top-five finish of his career, making up for the “win that never was” after crossing the finish line first at Talladega but being penalized for passing Tony Stewart below the yellow line in fall 2008. But on a jubilant Saturday night for Smith, that became a distant memory for good.

“Winning at Darlington,” Smith explained. “Means more than winning at Talladega ever could.”

“I think Regan is as good as any driver out there, so those guys have earned what they have,” Edwards added.  “There’s a reason they’ve been out-qualifying everyone and it was just a matter of time before they put a whole race together.  Myself included, I think all of us kind of underestimate them a little bit, but that will occur no longer. They got to Victory Lane and this is NASCAR. It’s equal opportunity. If you can do it, you earn it.”

2011 SOUTHERN 500 RACE RESULTS

About the author

What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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