DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — This time, Regan Smith got the job done. More important, he brought his No. 7 Chevrolet home in one piece after taking the checkered flag in Saturday’s Nationwide Series opener, the Drive4COPD 300, at Daytona International Speedway.
A year ago, Smith had the checkered flag in sight when spun out in front of the field as he jousted with Brad Keselowski. It triggered a crash that caused Kyle Larson’s car to go airborne and careen into the catch-fence near the start-finish line, injuring several spectators who were sprayed by debris.
“This means a lot, it’s Daytona, and it’s a good start to the year,’’ said Smith, who led twice for 35 laps and got drafting support from Trevor Bayne (third place) to win an exciting green-white-checkered shootout over Keselowski by .013 seconds.
It was the seventh-closest race in Nationwide Series history and second-closest at Daytona.
“After last year, what happened at the start-finish line, I felt terrible,’’ said Smith, who recorded his first victory in nine races here. “It’s a situation where you can’t change anything, but you’re just thankful that everybody was able to come back from their injuries and be OK.
“But I wanted to see the checkered flag in the proper manner at Daytona and not after causing a wreck there.’’
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Smith’s car owner, finished 11th after leading 28 laps. However, Earnhardt triggered a crash in Turn 1 as the field began to slow after the unfurling of the checkered flag. Earnhardt rear-ended Larson’s car on the apron. Larson collected Joe Nemechek’s car, which shot up the steep banking in Turn 1 and was rammed from behind by rookie driver Ryan Reed.
“It’s good to come out of the box strong like this . . . this is Daytona and it’s tough to win here,’’ Smith said. “I thought we had one last year but it didn’t quite happen, but this thing was fast and once I got up front I was able to stay up there and take a push from guys.’’
When Trevor Bayne, the 2011 Daytona 500 winner, raced his way into the 500 field in the No. 21 Ford, car owners Eddie and Len Wood knew they would not allow their father, Glen, a NASCAR Hall of Famer, to sit at his snowbound-home in Stuart, Va., and miss his first Daytona 500 after having attended all the rest.
Friday morning, Eddie Wood flew to Concord, N.C., to pick up his father, who drove from Virginia. Together they drove to Daytona, where they arrived Friday afternoon.
“I think it’s something he was proud to have done because he always drove down here and it goes back to 1947 coming to Daytona to watch [NASCAR legend] Curtis Turner on the beach,’’ Eddie Wood said. “This is before they even started racing and then they started three years later, but Daytona from the first week of February to the third week is where we’re supposed to be.’’
Six cars topped 197 miles per hour in the final Sprint Cup practice session before cars were put to bed before Sunday’s 500. Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 41 Chevrolet, posted the fastest lap of the session with a tour of the 2.5-mile tri-oval in 197.624 m.p.h. Kasey Kahne, behind the wheel of the No. 5 Chevy, was second fastest of the session (197.490) and was followed by Jamie McMurray in the No. 1 Chevrolet (197.070), Carl Edwards (197.070), Martin Truex Jr. (197.057), and Clint Bowyer (197.040) . . . Truex, who qualified second fastest and won a front-row starting position on the outside row, will be forced to drop to the rear of the field after his primary car was damaged in a last-lap crash of the second 150-mile qualifying heat in Thursday night’s Budweiser Duels. He managed to run 13 laps in his backup in preparation for Sunday. “I was definitely relieved to get some time in the car,’’ Truex said. “Honestly, I am really excited about this race car. Without a doubt this car is better than the one we ran [Thursday] night in the qualifying race.’’Michael Vega can be reached at email@example.com.