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.”
Follow me @JerryBonkowski