DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Regan Smith had the checkered flag in sight at Daytona a year ago and a freight train of cars in his rearview mirror.
He moved high to throw a block on Brad Keselowski and it backfired badly. The desperate attempt to preserve the win triggered a 12-car accident, Kyle Larson’s car sailed into the fence and debris from the wreck injured nearly 30 fans.
It was a racing accident, nobody’s fault. But Smith was racked with guilt.
So it was sweet redemption Saturday when he nipped Keselowski at the finish line to win the Nationwide Series opener — finally, a year later — at Daytona International Speedway.
“I think it hurt him deeply that the fans were involved in the accident,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who along with sister Kelley and Rick Hendrick owns the JR Motorsports Chevrolet that Smith drove to victory.
“I think that 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. That was definitely probably one of the toughest things he went through personally as a driver.”
Smith said he went to dinner with Earnhardt after the accident and leaned on his boss.
“I’m fortunate that I’ve got a boss who has been in a lot of different situations in this sport and understands a lot of different things over the years in Dale,” Smith said. “He just basically said ‘You’ve got to shake it off, it’s racing and no fault of anybody. Circumstances sometimes happen.’ He offered up a lot of good advice in that situation. It did bother me. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t.”
Nothing bothered Smith on Saturday.
He beat Keselowski by 0.013 for the second-closest finish at Daytona International Speedway and seventh closest in series history. It was the 300th victory for the Hendrick Motorsports engine shop.
Keselowski said last year’s crash-marred finish never entered his mind as he plotted his strategy over the closing laps. Smith and Keselowski raced side-by-side at the front of the pack over the final two overtime laps. They were door-to-door exiting the final turn and Smith edged him at the line.
“I’m not that smart and I’ve got a terrible memory,” Keselowski said of not worrying about a repeat of last year.
Trevor Bayne finished third, followed by Kyle Busch, winner of Friday night’s Truck Series race, and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Elliott Sadler.
Brendan Gaughan was sixth and followed by Ty Dillon.
Earnhardt Jr., who was 11th, ran into the back of Joe Nemechek after the finish. He said he was being pushed by Kyle Larson and traffic slowed too quickly. It caused heavy damage to Nemechek and Ryan Sieg’s cars that Earnhardt said he’d pay to repair.
“We were slowing down. I was looking all around trying to figure out where everybody was at,” he said. “Totally my fault. Really wasn’t paying attention. I hate it for Joe and those guys ‘cause they don’t need to be tearing up race cars.”
NASCAR issued its first drafting penalty of the season 86 laps into race when James Buescher was called for push-drafting Keselowski. Buescher’s car seemed to be under the rear of Keselowski’s car for several seconds, which violates NASCAR’s ban on drafting.
NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said the penalty was called because Buescher appeared to be the aggressor regardless of what the television angle showed.
Keselowski said the penalty “set the tone for the rest of the race as far as what guys were looking at for driving their cars.”