A year ago, Regan Smith left Daytona International Speedway a shaken driver.
On Saturday, he left a winner.
Smith outdueled Brad Keselowski in a green-white-checkered finish and won the NASCAR Nationwide Series DRIVE4COPD 300 race by 0.013 of a second, the seventh-closest finish in Nationwide history and second-closest in series history at Daytona.
That was a stark contrast to the finish a year ago, when Smith led going into the final turn but his attempt to block Keselowski caused a 12-car crash that sent Kyle Larson’s car into the fence and debris flying into the stands, injuring 28 fans.
This time, Smith, running second to Keselowski’s Ford at the beginning of the restart, took advantage of a bump draft from Trevor Bayne, dived in front with his JR Motorsports Chevrolet in the final turn and won his first race at Daytona and fourth in Nationwide.
“Last year was a tough pill to swallow … nobody felt worse than me on Saturday night and Sunday morning,” Smith said. “We were fortunate that it all turned out well and we learned some stuff from that.”
Smith, 30, bounced back from the experience and led all Nationwide regulars with two wins last season. After winning the spring race at Talladega, he held the points lead for 10 straight weeks before settling for third in the standings.
But the memory of Daytona haunted Smith for most of the year.
“I think it hurt him deeply that the fans were involved in the accident,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., co-owner of Smith’s No. 7 Chevy. “He personally and privately bore some responsibility for his involvement in the crash, just being in the crash, to have someone in the grandstands get hurt had to affect him tremendously.
“He's a good guy with a good heart. But I think that really shook everybody. I think it shook the whole sport, to be honest.”
More than anyone else, Smith leaned on Earnhardt.
“I'm fortunate that I've got a boss who has been in a lot of situations in this sport, understands a lot of different things over the years in Dale,” Smith said. “He told me at dinner that night, ‘You got to shake it off. It's racing. No fault of anybody’s.’
“To say I haven't thought about it this week at all would be a complete lie.”
But as Smith raced to the checkered flag Saturday, he said last year’s finish from was not on his mind.