Were it not for Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, Regan Smith would be the story of the week following his stunning upset win in the Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on Saturday.
Smith stayed out under caution in the closing laps and held off a furious charge from Carl Edwards in a green-white-checkered finish to claim his first official NASCAR victory.
I say official because we all remember what happened at Talladega in 2008, when Smith was a rookie driving for the now-defunct Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Coming to the checkered flag, Smith was running second to Tony Stewart. In the tri-oval, Smith went high to pass Stewart. When Stewart blocked, Smith cut back to the bottom -- and as Stewart tried to block again, Smith when below the yellow line and beat Stewart to the finish line.
NASCAR ruled Stewart the winner.
Setting aside the legitimacy of the yellow line rule (that's a topic for another post), NASCAR was right to rule as it did. Smith went below the yellow line to improve his position, which is against the rule. It's true that was Smith's only option aside from wrecking Stewart (see Keselowski & Edwards, Talladega 2009), but the rule is the rule.
Still, it was telling that FOX's Mike Joy chose to announce Smith's winning on Saturday by declaring, "This checkered flag he gets to keep!" I can't think of anyone in the NASCAR world who isn't happy for Smith's upset win -- both for Smith himself, and for his underfunded Furniture Row team based out of Denver, Colo.
Go ahead, say Smith stole the win. Try to de-legitimize his victory by calling it a strategy win. Racing is all about who gets to the checkered flag first, and on Saturday night, Smith did that. He won the race, and nothing will ever take that away from him. He'll always have that trophy, and his name will always be in the record book as a Southern 500 winner.
Now isn't the time to debate whether or not Smith can mount a run at the Chase (he's 27th in points, but could get a Chase wild card if he somehow vaulted into the Top 20), or if he'll even win another race. Now is the time to enjoy the moment, relish in yet another amazing storyline in an early NASCAR season that's been rife with them.
This isn't just about letting Smith enjoy his moment; this is about NASCAR, as a whole, enjoying the moment. Stories like this are rare in the era of multi-car conglomerates; if you don't drive for Hendrick, Childress, Roush or Gibbs, your chances of winning or running competitively every week are slim. What makes Saturday night so special was that, for once, the little guy beat the big boys.
Smith has a lot of talent; when he won Rookie of the Year honors in 2008, he went the entire season without recording a DNF. For the most part, Smith doesn't tear up his equipment, and he often runs his No. 78 Chevrolet past its capabilities. Smith's the kind of guy you would love to see in a Hendrick or a Roush car, just so you could see what he can truly accomplish.
Sadly, that might never happen. But Saturday night did happen, and for that, both Smith and NASCAR should be dancing in the streets.