Race Weekend Central

Uncertain Times Await for Suddenly-Replaced Regan Smith

Hearing the news of Kurt Busch’s arrival at Furniture Row Racing next season might cause one to recall the path that the team has traveled to get to 2013 — from Jerry Robertson to a former Cup champ. But, aside from the fanfare of a superstar driver’s big announcement, it also elicits a worthwhile question: what happens to Regan Smith?

Smith, who’s been within the NASCAR ranks since 2002, came to Furniture Row, a Denver, Colo.-based, single-car organization, in 2009, when the team was running on a part-time basis after failing to qualify for multiple races from 2006-2008. After switching back to full-time status in 2010, Smith and the No. 78 team scored a popular victory in the 2011 Southern 500 at Darlington. Just this past off-season, Smith moved to Colorado to be closer to the rest of the organization, expecting his future to lie with the Denver-based race team.

But 2012 has been marred with bad luck and poor finishes. Through 28 races, Smith has finished in the top 10 only twice, and both of those results didn’t even come until Pocono and Watkins Glen last month. And despite currently sitting 23rd in overall points, which, if Smith can hold it, would be his highest finish yet (and the highest finish of any driver from a single-car organization), he’s currently without a ride for 2013.

The ‘why’ may seem easy; Smith’s results haven’t been great this season, and the Furniture Row team is undoubtedly looking for a way to continue building the organization, since little progress has been made recently–or, at least, has been shown on-track. But, just a few weeks ago, it seemed as though both team and driver were on the verge of negotiating an extension that would keep Smith in the ride beyond 2012.

Regan Smith was all smiles as recently as Richmond as it looked as though he’d re-sign with Furniture Row Racing for 2013. That all changed this week.

So the other tenet of the move is prestige–or, more so, the allure of it. While Regan Smith is a likable driver who has probably never garnered hatred from any fan, he also lacks the star power of the sport’s elite. Chances are he’ll never make it to the level of a Jeff Gordon or a Matt Kenseth. While his Darlington win was well-deserved, Smith and the team are rarely–if ever–in the mix for a win any given Saturday or Sunday. Kurt Busch brings that. Despite his troubles at Phoenix Racing in 2012, it’s a stretch to say that Busch’s best days are already behind him.

What happens now for Smith? The first move may be, in fact, that: a move. And no, not in the traditional driver-moves-to-this-team sense.

As stated, Smith currently resides in Colorado after moving there to be closer to the Furniture Row team (stray observation: does that mean Kurt will move there as well?). If and when he does get a ride for 2013, chances are it’ll be with a North Carolina-based organization. While it’s certainly possible to work together despite being thousands of miles apart, it’s also certainly not a situation to be desired.

Where Smith actually goes is the bigger issue. Unless he can nail down sponsorship, staying with Furniture Row in a second car is highly unlikely (and the team has only done it once, with Kenny Wallace at Daytona in 2008). Really, sponsorship (as it tends to be with almost everyone with the exception of Kurt Busch, since FRR has built-in sponsorship) is going to play a deciding factor in whether or not Smith continues in a ride at all, because it just doesn’t seem likely that any owner will pony up and fund him out of pocket for the entire season.

There is the question of Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 43. It has not been confirmed that Aric Almirola will be returning to the ride in 2013. If it so happens that Almirola does leave the team, Smith is certainly one of the best options to take over that car. It’s certainly a step up, though not a big one; Petty’s team contends for wins a bit more often than Furniture Row but is still one of the sport’s second-tier organizations. But Smith also seems like a good fit and a more cautious foil to Marcos Ambrose, who has a tendency to drive over his head at times. Unless Petty decides to go with the sponsorship of Michael Annett or bring in AJ Allmendinger, Smith should be that team’s choice if they do make a change and can afford to do so without much sponsorship leaving them.

Another rumor that’s been thrown out is a little more interesting: the No. 2 ride in the Nationwide Series, which will be vacated by Elliott Sadler (and most likely OneMain Financial) at season’s end. Such a move would place Smith with Sadler and, most likely, Brian Vickers as former Cup full-timers who have jumped down a peg (the Truck Series a few years ago, anyone?). Obviously, the sponsorship question remains intact in this scenario, but aside from that very major detail, there isn’t anyone else who seems to be on the short list for a full-time ride in that car, especially since Ty Dillon and Joey Coulter apparently plan on staying in the Truck Series for another year. It could become a ride with a rotating array of drivers, or Richard Childress could go the Joe Gibbs route and hire someone like Smith. The rumor’s legitimacy remains a mystery, but it’s certainly nothing unappealing.

The other options? Well, they’re a bit less developed. Front Row Motorsports or BK Racing could be good fits if their driver lineups alter, even though it would be a step backward for Smith in terms of equipment. Phoenix Racing is now without a 2013 driver, though James Finch doesn’t seem too positive about keeping the old engines fired (then again, he never really does).

It may be that we’ll be seeing Regan Smith in a much smaller role in 2013. Think Brian Vickers this year–you know, a handful of races for Michael Waltrip Racing, but little else. It wouldn’t be much and it’s tough to say where he would go in that scenario, but that’s the trouble of the Sprint Cup Series at least: available rides are about as rare as Delma Cowart making the Daytona 500.

But it’s worked for Vickers, though he’s admittedly had more success in NASCAR. Driving a part-time schedule didn’t get him anything more permanent in 2012, but it’s got him recognition for 2013. Perhaps if Regan Smith can impress in these last few races of 2012 (barring him being booted from the ride early in favor of Busch, of course) or in a part-time affair in 2013, we’ll see more of the same for the Cato, N.Y. native–and that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

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