Regan Smith claimed his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory by fending off Carl Edwards in a close green-white-checkered finish at Darlington Raceway.
Smith, the 2008 rookie of the year, had crossed the finish line first at Talladega in October of that year but was deemed to have passed Tony Stewart by driving bellow the double-yellow line which limits where cars can race for position. Officials stripped him of victory back then, but nearly two and a half years later, the 27-year-old finally got to celebrate in victory lane at one of NASCAR's most legendary venues.
The Furniture Row racer grabbed the lead of the race when the caution waved with eight laps remaining after the engine of Jeff Burton's Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet expired. Smith was one of only three drivers who stayed on the track while the leaders pitted for two new tires for the final sprint.
The green flag waved with five laps to go and Smith was able to remain up front before the caution came out three laps later for the final time following an incident ignited by contact between Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch and RCR's Kevin Harvick, with Clint Bowyer also getting involved as they fought hard for eighth place.
The final restart saw Smith get a nice push from the third-placed Penske Dodge of Brad Keselowski, who helped him stay ahead of a charging Carl Edwards as the penultimate lap of the race started. The Roush Fenway racer quickly moved up to second and placed Smith under pressure ahead of the final lap.
Smith drove right on the edge out of Turn 2 for the last time, getting sideways while trying to get on the power as quickly as possible. With the checkered flag within sight, he did enough to keep Edwards behind him out of the last two corners, taking his first victory at NASCAR's top level in his 105th Cup start.
Having qualified better than any of his rivals this season with seven top-10 starts out of a possible 10, Smith was finally able to translate his speed into a top result – which was also the first victory for his squad and team owner Barney Visser.
"I don't really know how to put it in words right now. It is so surreal," said Smith in disbelief. "We had a good car all night and we had to work for a way back. We kept working on it and these guys kept digging and digging and digging. We got track position. It was good out front with clean air. I hit the wall on the white-flag lap but the chances of me checking up there were about zero.
"My biggest concern on the initial restart, I wasn't as worried. It was the second restart when Carl was on the outside and he had the fresh tires also – or fresher tires than I did. I spun them real bad on the first one and I just backed it up a bit of a notch on the second restart and went with it.
"It stuck and I held it wide open in [Turns] 1 and 2 on the first lap and tried to hold it wide open in [Turns] 3 and 4 also. The car was good when I got in clean air. That is all I say. I can't be prouder of this team."
Edwards led the race for 57 laps and was up front when he pitted for the last time under the penultimate caution. His second place further strengthens his lead in the standings, although he lamented not being able to wrap up what could have been his second win of the season.
"First of all, congratulations to Regan. He earned that," said Edwards. "On the restart, he spun the tires a little bit and I thought, 'All right, I'm not going to beat him to the line because I've got a good enough car with fresh tires. I can beat him here.' And as soon as I started pedaling, Brad hooked on his rear bumper and they took off. I thought, 'Oh, man. I'm in trouble now.'
"I drove down into turns real hard and Brad did a good job not wrecking underneath me and then we raced hard and he won the race... I'm sure that will feel good tomorrow, but, right now, I wanted to win that race."
Keselowski, who also ventured on staying out when the leaders pitted for the last time, capitalized on his strategy to claim his best result of the season thus far on a day that saw his team-mate Kurt Busch go through yet another tough outing, finishing 27th.
Behind Keselowski, Red Bull's Kasey Kahne seemed poised to take victory as the lap count faded but despite leading the most laps from pole position, he had to be content with fourth ahead of Stewart-Haas front-row partner Ryan Newman. Hamlin was a solid sixth, while Tony Stewart recovered from being a lap down due to an untimely green-flag stop to finish seventh.
Martin Truex Jr. was 10th, recovering from a spin while entering the pits, with Kyle Busch following him in 11th. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver was at the centre of controversy following a late exchange with Harvick which dragged into the post-race as the RCR racer tried to show his displeasure to Busch when they drove into the pits after the race concluded.
A furious Harvick confronted Busch, who tried to avoid physical contact but still pushed his rival's car while driving away from the scene as Harvick attempted punching him with his right arm. The pair met with NASCAR officials in the sanctioning body's hauler after the race (see separate story). Harvick was classified 17th in the end, having led the event for 47 laps.
Reigning champion Jimmie Johnson was 15th, recovering from contact with Juan Pablo Montoya and then a spin on his own later during the second half of the race.
As usual at Darlington the race was action packed, the caution waving 11 times, seven of them due to incidents.
Results - 370 laps:
Pos Driver Team/Car Time/Gap
1. Regan Smith Furniture Row Chevrolet 3h54m26.000s
2. Carl Edwards Roush Fenway Ford + 0.196s
3. Brad Keselowski Penske Dodge + 0.861s
4. Kasey Kahne Red Bull Toyota + 1.100s
5. Ryan Newman Stewart Haas Chevrolet + 1.406s
6. Denny Hamlin Gibbs Toyota + 1.682s
7. Tony Stewart Stewart Haas Chevrolet + 1.796s
8. Greg Biffle Roush Fenway Ford + 2.594s
9. Jamie McMurray Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet + 2.635s
10. Martin Truex Jr Waltrip Toyota + 2.827s
11. Kyle Busch Gibbs Toyota + 3.419s
12. Jeff Gordon Hendrick Chevrolet + 3.682s
13. Marcos Ambrose Petty Ford + 4.392s
14. Dale Earnhardt Jr Hendrick Chevrolet + 4.430s
15. Jimmie Johnson Hendrick Chevrolet + 4.874s
16. David Reutimann Waltrip Toyota + 8.646s
17. Kevin Harvick Childress Chevrolet + 9.729s
18. Bobby Labonte JTG Daugherty Toyota + 27.111s
19. Mark Martin Hendrick Chevrolet + 1 lap
20. AJ Allmendinger Petty Ford + 1 lap
21. David Ragan Roush Fenway Ford + 1 lap
22. Paul Menard Childress Chevrolet + 1 lap
23. Juan Pablo Montoya Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet + 2 laps
24. Dave Blaney Baldwin Chevrolet + 3 laps
25. Matt Kenseth Roush Fenway Ford + 4 laps
26. Travis Kvapil Front Row Ford + 5 laps
27. Kurt Busch Penske Dodge + 6 laps
28. Ken Schrader FAS Lane Ford + 6 laps
29. Landon Cassill Phoenix Chevrolet + 6 laps
30. Casey Mears Germain Toyota + 6 laps
31. Clint Bowyer Childress Chevrolet + 7 laps
32. David Gilliland Front Row Ford + 8 laps
Jeff Burton Childress Chevrolet 358 laps
Brian Vickers Red Bull Toyota 332 laps
Joey Logano Gibbs Toyota 318 laps
Tony Raines Front Row Ford 172 laps
Robby Gordon Gordon Dodge 87 laps
TJ Bell LTD Toyota 67 laps
JJ Yeley Whitney Chevrolet 34 laps
Mike Skinner Germain Toyota 29 laps
David Stremme Inception Chevrolet 27 laps
Joe Nemechek NEMCO Toyota 22 laps
Michael McDowell HP Toyota 7 laps