Regan Smith’s does well in fill-in role for Tony Stewart, but falls short due to late crash

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Regan Smith had one of the hardest tasks any driver can ever be asked to perform:

To replace a fellow driver at virtually the last minute and compete in a top-level NASCAR Sprint Cup race without any practice, qualifying or even much time to get adjusted to sitting in a strange race car.

And on the toughest type of track of all, namely, a twisting, turning road course.

Smith was tabbed early Sunday morning to return to Watkins Glen International to replace Tony Stewart, who decided to sit out the Cheez-It 355 at WGI due to the tragic sprint car accident he was involved in Saturday night.

Smith did a more than admirable job, starting 41st and getting as high as 11th on Lap 28.

Unfortunately, Smith’s fill-in role came to an early end eight laps from the scheduled finish when he was caught up in a multi-car wreck in Turn 1 of the nearly 2.5-mile road course.

The incident happened when it appeared on TV replays that Kyle Larson got into a slowing Matt Kenseth, who in turn got into the rear of and spun Jimmie Johnson.

Smith tried his best to avoid Johnson but ultimately couldn’t, wrecking the front end of Stewart’s No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet.

He finished 37th.

Earlier in the day, during a red flag period for guardrail repairs from a vicious multi-car wreck, Smith acknowledged the difficulty of essentially being thrown into the fray.

“I’d say the braking points are the toughest things for me today,” Smith told ESPN. “I feel like I’m good one lap and bad the next lap. The race car is fast and the guys at Stewart-Haas have great equipment and great cars. I’m just trying to catch up with the equipment.

“It’s a situation where the first 30 laps are just kind of practice and getting re-acclimated and realized I was burning the rear tires off and I needed to calm down just a little bit and protect stuff more than the Nationwide Series.”

Smith finished 17th in Saturday’s NNS race and was already back at his North Carolina home when SHR officials called and beckoned him to return back to upstate New York on Sunday morning. Ironically, Smith accompanied team owner Rick Hendrick on the flight and resulting helicopter ride to Watkins Glen.

Not only was it Smith’s first race in a Sprint Cup race since Dover in May, it was also his first Cup race on a road course since 2012, when – ironically enough – he finished ninth in the Cup race at WGI.

Smith didn’t have much time – about 15 minutes – to get fitted into Stewart’s car, but because he is of a similar physical height and stature as Stewart, the modifications were made with little difficulty.

“It’s close enough,” Smith said of his comfort behind the wheel of Stewart’s car. “It’s obviously not perfect, you’re never going to be perfect when you’re in somebody else’s race car. But it’s a similar seat mold to what I run, a similar height with drivers and stuff like that, so we didn’t have to do too much work there.

“I just want to finish the day off strong, avoid whatever wrecks are coming and try to get just whatever we can.”

Unfortunately, that would not be the case. Still, Smith should receive kudos for undertaking an already tough job that was made even tougher because of the circumstances of Saturday night’s tragedy.

“I don’t know that we really had any expectations, just to go out there and race and that’s it,” Smith said of what Stewart’s team hoped from him going into the race. “It’s obviously been a long day for everybody with the team, and we just go out and race and see what the day brings us and go from there. That’s about all the expectations you can have.”

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IMSA: Sebring test notes

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Ahead of next month’s Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring, teams from the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship took to Sebring International Raceway to round out a week of IMSA testing at the 3.74-mile road course.

Below are news highlights from Friday and Saturday at Sebring.

Derani Aiming for a Repeat of 2016 Victory

Tequila Patrón ESM’s Pipo Derani burst onto the American racing scene in 2016 with standout performances at the Rolex 24 and 12 Hours of Sebring to lead the ESM team to victory at both races.

His Sebring triumph was particularly impressive as he charged from fourth to first in the final ten minutes to secure the victory in one of the most thrilling finishes the race has ever seen.

Now two years removed from those successes, Derani appreciates the impact those 2016 triumphs had on his career.

“If you’re talking about sports car racing, you’re talking about Daytona, Sebring, Le Mans, Petit and those races that are known worldwide,” said the now 24-year-old Derani. “After winning Daytona and immediately coming here at Sebring – which if I’m not wrong, I was the first guy winning both on debut and the first Brazilian, probably to win back-to-back on those two races. It definitely changed my career. It opened many doors for myself and I’m really glad that it happened. Nothing comes easy. I’m really glad that ESM gave me the chance in 2016 to be in those races. Two years later, I can’t wait to win again.”

With testing now in the rearview mirror, Derani hopes he and the ESM team have found the right setup package to give them another chance at a victory.

“(Thursday) was a day that we managed to get a lot of information,” he explained. Most importantly, we ran a lot. We were out on track, and that is really good for us. Hopefully, this work is going to pay off really, really soon.”

United Autosports Continues American Odyssey at Sebring

Although two-time FIA Formula 1 world champion Fernando Alonso won’t be in the mix, United Autosports will be continuing the American adventure they started at January’s Rolex 24 with entries at the three other Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup events in 2018, beginning with March’s 12 Hours of Sebring.

The No. 32 Ligier JS P217 Gibson will be the team’s entrant at the remaining NAEC events and they will look to build on a fourth-place finish at the Rolex. However, while fourth looks like a strong result, team co-owner Richard Dean felt a victory may have been within their reach.

“We were a little bit disappointed in the end, even though we finished fourth because I think with three hours to go we sat in third place and the two Cadillacs were looking like they were struggling, we felt like we had an opportunity that 24-hour races can give you,” said Dean. “But everybody’s got a story, so we came out of there with a fourth place.”

Drivers Phil Hanson and Paul Di Resta returned to the team to complete the Sebring test, while Alex Brundle filled in for an ill Bruno Senna, who is scheduled to race with the team at the 12-hour enduro.

Dean emphasized, though, that Senna’s previous experience around the track should make up for his absence.

“Bruno couldn’t travel, he wasn’t well enough, and there was just no point in him getting on a plane and being ill here,” Dean asserted. “He knows the track. Of the three drivers we’ve got, he’s the one who needed the least laps around here.

Dean added that the team is beginning to get a better foothold on American soil, citing help from Andretti Autosport, which should improve their prospects for the remaining NAEC rounds.

“We feel a little bit more organized, we’ve got our own truck now, and we’ve got a little base here, and (Andretti Autosport) have been helping us out an awful lot, so our little collaboration or alliance with Andretti has certainly steadied the ship a little bit for us and helped us,” Dean said. “We’re excited to do these remaining races, and now that we’ve got Daytona experience with us, it’s definitely going to help us do a much better job in the approach for Sebring, Watkins Glen and Petit.”

Lally Samples New Continental Tire Design

Continental Tire, the current tire supplier for the Prototype and GT Daytona classes in the Weathertech Championship, rolled out a new tire design for the Sebring test, and Magnus Racing’s Andy Lally was the first to sample it on Thursday.

“Basically, we’re all going through sweeps right now and feeling things out. What does the tire feel like when you’re in qualifying mode versus full-fuel mode?” Lally said after the initial running. “There are all sorts of stuff when you get such a change like what we’ve got here. This is a relatively big change for the GT cars. Maybe for the Prototypes, it’s not as big a change, but for the GT3 cars, it’s quite a different feel on the platform. We’re just going through that.”
The new tire design comes after a Rolex 24 that was plagued with tire problems, as several teams suffered failures, especially on the left-rear, during the 24-hour race. Wayne Taylor Racing even elected to retire their No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R after suffering five tire failures.
Miller, Bechtolsheimer Sample New CJ Wilson Racing Acura NSX GT3
Marc Miller and Till Bechtolsheimer got to work quickly with new Weathertech entrant CJ Wilson Racing, with both drivers sampling their new Acura NSX GT3 on Thursday and Friday.
Miller is a veteran of GT3 machinery and has won big races before – he was a GTD class winner at the 2016 Motul Petit Le Mans. Bechtolsheimer, however, is all new to GT3 machinery, having primarily raced vintage cars along with forays into the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge.
“I’ve not driven anything close to a GTD car before,” quipped Bechtolsheimer. “The first time driving it properly here at Sebring is kind of fitting because the first time I drove a car on slicks was at Sebring two years ago in moving to Continental Tire, which was at least as daunting at the time as moving into GTD now.
“The first time I turned a lap or two in the car, even though I was just trying to figure out where all the switches were and so on, I straight away felt that this is a car that’s going to be fun to drive. It’s going to take me time to build up to be on pace, but it’s a confidence-inspiring car and its yeah, it’s a lot nicer than perhaps I was expecting.”
The Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring rolls off on March 17.