About two and a half years ago at Talladega Superspeedway, then Sprint Cup rookie candidate Regan Smith thought he scripted one of the greatest upsets in NASCAR history.
After surviving all the on-track antics in terms of carnage and lead shuffles, the Cato, NY native looked like he captured the fall classic over two-time champion Tony Stewart - that is, until a controversial ruling relegated him from the win to an unforgettable 18th place finish.
Despite capturing the freshman honors in 2008, Smith lost his ride with Dale Earnhardt Inc., opting to sign with the Denver, CO-based Furniture Row Motorsports No. 78 team, a team that struggled in its initial years in NASCAR.
Together, Smith and his independent team elected to run half the 2009 schedule, wisely staying within their means in terms of a budget and running full races. In 2010, the team returned to the circuit full-time, finishing a respectable 28th in the final standings.
Struggling and thinking more about survival and respectability over the past two years, on Saturday night at Darlington Raceway, the pieces finally came together for Smith, FRM, and crew chief Pete Rondeau.
And what a tremendous stage to capture a first and breakthrough victory for everyone for the No. 78 Chevy team.
"I'm not supposed to win this race," Smith said per AP Sports Writer Pete Iacobelli's race recap. "I've never even had a top-five. I guess in this series, it just shows anyone can win."
Although Smith ran outside the top-10 running order for a majority of the race, he stayed out of trouble, staying within reach when perennial contenders fell by the wayside.
Saturday night's Showtime Southern 500 appeared to be in the hands of racers like Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, and Carl Edwards, who led a combined total of 259 of the 370 laps that made up the Mother's Day weekend event.
Kahne and Edwards swapped the lead late in the race, arguably having the strongest cars during the closing laps before a rash of caution flags in the final 10 laps set up the wild finish.
While the race leaders elected to pit for two fresh tires, among those staying out and rolling the dice for a win was Regan Smith.
Traditionally, pitting for fresh rubber often triumphs over running on older tires, but on this night, Smith and his team weren't going to be denied their first Cup victory.
Surviving a pair of restarts, including the dramatic last one in which he brushed the outside retaining wall on the final lap, Smith held off a hard charging Carl Edwards, capturing that long awaited debut win.
"Winning here means more to me than that win could've ever meant," Smith said, referring to the 2008 race which he lost in a controversial ruling. "I don't think I'll go to bed thinking about Talladega, that's for sure."
As Smith relished his win, there were some fireworks in the final laps between Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, two of NASCAR's most aggressive racers in the Cup series.
Both racers have a history of sheet metal trading, with Harvick admittedly taking out Busch in last season's finale at Homestead-Miami.
Sure, the race was held on Mother's Day weekend, but Busch and Harvick didn't appear to care too much, with more paint swapping and heated tempers flaring in the outset of the race.
First, Busch appeared to get into the side of Harvick's No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet, crinkling in his right front fender. Racing hard for a great finish, the duo then raced three-wide in a track that traditionally doesn't call for double-file action along the corners.
Heading to the frontstretch, Busch's car bobbled, getting into Harvick, who then took out his teammate Clint Bowyer on the inside line, sending him into a grinding crash along the inside retaining wall at nearly 110 mph.
Adding insult to injury for the Richard Childress Racing efforts, Busch spun Harvick into the outside retaining wall just before turn one, nearly taking out a myriad of lead lap contenders.
Following their on-track sparring, Harvick chased down Busch during the cool-down lap, eventually climbing out of his car while the 25-year-old Vegas native remained in his No. 18 Toyota.
Harvick appeared to grab Busch, who tapped the No. 29 car out of his way, where it moved with moderate contact into the pit stall wall.
Busch and Harvick were called into the Sprint Cup officials' hauler, with both drivers not getting into too much detail about their confrontation after the race.
"Just uncalled for. Just unacceptable racing," Busch said. "You know, it's in the last couple of laps but I gave him room off (turn) two, I didn't get the room. Just real unfortunate. I hate that we tore up a couple of cars there."
When pressed for reaction, Harvick simply said, "You saw the end."
Edwards may have come up short in scoring his first Showtime Southern 500 victory, but he added to his points lead over Jimmie Johnson, who struggled to a 15th place finish.
Here's a look at the top-10 finishers from Darlington, including the manufacturer and race points scored:
- Regan Smith, Chevy/47 points
- Carl Edwards, Ford/43 points
- Brad Keselowski, Dodge/41 points
- Kasey Kahne, Toyota/42 points
- Ryan Newman, Chevy/40 points
- Denny Hamlin, Toyota/38 points
- Tony Stewart, Chevy/38 points
- Greg Biffle, Ford/36 points
- Jamie McMurray, Chevy/36 points
- Martin Truex, Jr., Toyota/35 points
Finishing outside the top-10 included Kyle Busch (11th), Jeff Gordon (12th), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (14th), Bobby Labonte (18th), Dave Blaney (24th), and Kurt Busch (27th).
Dover International Speedway plays host to the next NASCAR Sprint Cup race, which will be round 11 of 36 of the championship season (Next Sunday, Live 1 PM ET on FOX). Defending race winner Kyle Busch looks to put aside his duel with Kevin Harvick as well as duplicating his efforts from 2010 at The Monster Mile.
Heading into next Sunday's FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks, here's a look at the top-10 points standings, with manufacturer, team, and points total:
- Carl Edwards, Ford/Roush-Fenway: 1 win, 378 points
- Jimmie Johnson, Chevy/Hendrick: 1 win, 355 points
- Kyle Busch, Toyota/Gibbs: 2 wins, 339 points
- Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevy/Hendrick: 331 points
- Kevin Harvick, Chevy/Childress: 2 wins, 328 points
- Ryan Newman, Chevy/Stewart-Haas: 317 points
- Tony Stewart, Chevy/Stewart-Haas: 313 points
- Kurt Busch, Dodge/Penske: 306 points
- Clint Bowyer, Chevy/Childress: 297 points
- Matt Kenseth, Ford/Roush-Fenway: 1 win, 295 points
Darlington produced yet another thrilling instant classic, showcasing a first time winner in prime time and thus proving once again that NASCAR Sprint Cup racing is among the most competitive form of stock car racing around.
Can Regan Smith build upon his big win with another solid finish?
Will the Hendrick Chevy quartet square away their handling issues at the intermediate speedways?
Is Kurt Busch ever going to get a grip with his Penske equipment and crew?
Stories will unfold from the very first moment that the Cup cars are unloaded from their team haulers, thus beginning yet another weekend of drama and action, this time in Dover, DE.