CONCORD Regan Smith’s stint in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s car got off to a shaky start Saturday in the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Smith – subbing in the No. 88 Chevy for two races while Earnhardt recovers from a concussion – lasted all of 61 laps before a blown engine forced him to the garage and ended his night. He finished 38th.
“There wasn’t anything wrong with it until I saw a little smoke come into the cockpit,” said Smith. “Then it let go at the start-finish line.”
Smith was running 10th when the engine blew.
“It was fast up until then,” he said. “It was a car capable of doing everything it needed to.”
It’s been a whirlwind week for Smith, who was originally scheduled to drive the No. 51 Chevy for Phoenix Racing at Charlotte. But that changed Thursday morning, when he received a text message from Earnhardt crew chief Steve Letarte asking him to call him.
Smith, who didn’t recognize Letarte’s number on his cell phone, made the call. Letarte answered and immediately asked Smith if he would fill in for Earnhardt this week in Charlotte and next weekend at Kansas Speedway.
It didn’t take Smith long to realize that driving for Earnhardt’s Hendrick Motorsports team might take some getting used to. He got a lot more attention from fans in the garage, for instance.
“A lot of people in ‘88’ shirts were pretty pumped up, telling me to go get ’em, to do a good job,” said Smith. “He’s got the biggest fan base in the sport, and they’ve been good to me.”
Smith said he doesn’t have a motor home any more, so he has spent much of the week at CMS in the Earnhardt team’s trailer, working things out with Letarte and the crew.
“They did an awesome job with that,” said Smith, whose lone career victory came in 2011 at Darlington. “I don’t have to worry about what I say on radio. I can talk like a normal race car driver; things I’d say if I’d been here for three years. I don’t have to worry about stepping on anybody’s feet.”
Next up for Smith is Kansas, where the team will go for testing on Wednesday before focusing on next Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400.
“I’ve got (Saturday night) and (Sunday) to get over this,” said Smith. “Then it’s back to work Monday and then we’ve got three days in Kansas to test.
“These guys will figure it out.”