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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Final 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona results, stats

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona overall results were all streaks: two consecutive victories in the endurance classic for Meyer Shank Racing and three in a row for Acura.

And Helio Castroneves became the second driver to win three consecutive Rolex 24s and the first to win in three straight years (Peter Gregg won in 1973, ’75 and ’76; the race wasn’t held in ’74 because of a global oil crisis).

Starting from the pole position, Tom Blomqvist took the checkered flag in the No. 60 ARX-06 that led a race-high 365 of 783 laps with co-drivers Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud and Colin Braun.

RESULTS: Click here for the finishing order in the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona l By class

Meyer Shank Racing now has two Rolex 24 victories and the 2022 championship since entering the premier prototype category of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in 2021.

“I think what’s so special about this team is we are a small team compared to some of our opponents, but the atmosphere, the way we work, enables people to get the best out of themselves, and I think that’s why we’re such high achievers,” Blomqvist said. “I think there’s no egos. It’s a very open book, and that just enables each and every one of us to reach our potential. I think that’s why we’ve achieved so much success in really a short time at this level of competition.”

It’s the 16th IMSA victory for MSR.

The 61st running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona marked the debut of the Grand Touring Prototype category that brought hybrid engine technology to IMSA’s top level.

In other categories:

LMP2: James Allen passed Ben Hanley on the final lap and delivered a victory in the No. 55 ORECA by 0.016 seconds. It’s the second IMSA victory for Proton Competition, which last won at Sebring in 2012. It was the first Rolex 24 victory for Allen and co-drivers Gianmaria Bruni, Fred Poordad and Francesco Pizzi.

GTD Pro: Cooper MacNeil won in the last start of his IMSA career as the No. 79 Mercedes-AMG GT3 scored the first Rolex 24 at Daytona for WeatherTech Racing and the team’s fourth career victory.

MacNeil, who co-drove with Maro Engel, Jules Gounon and Daniel Juncadella, earned his 12th career victory and first at the Rolex 24.

“Winning by last IMSA race is tremendous,” MacNeil said.

GTD: The No. 27 Heart of Racing Team delivered the first Rolex 24 at Daytona for Aston Martin, which has been competing in endurance races at Daytona International Speedway since 1964. Drivers Marco Sorensen, Roman De Angelis, Darren Turner and Ian James (also the team principal) earned the victory in the English brand’s 13th attempt.

It’s also the first Rolex 24 at Daytona win for Heart of Racing, which has seven IMSA wins.

LMP3: Anthony Mantella, Wayne Boyd, Nico Varrone and Thomas Merrill drove the No. 17 AWA Duqueine D08 to victory by 12 laps for the team’s first class win in IMSA.


STATS PACKAGE FOR ROLEX 24 HOURS OF DAYTONA:

Fastest laps by driver

Fastest laps by driver after race (over the weekend)

Fastest laps by driver and class after race

Fastest lap sequence

Lap chart

Leader sequence

Race analysis by lap

Stint analysis

Time cards

Pit stop time cards

Best sector times

Race distance and speed average

Flag analysis

Weather report

NEXT: The 2023 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season will resume with the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring March 18 with coverage across NBC, USA and Peacock.