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The Hot Pass: Smith looking for 'Dega redemption

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Lee Spencer

Lee Spencer is the Senior NASCAR Writer for FOXSports.com. She has provided award-winning coverage of auto racing over the last 15 years. Spencer has lent her expertise to both television and radio and is a regular contributor to SiriusXM Radio and the Performance Racing Network. Follow her on Twitter.

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TALLADEGA, Ala.

Talladega Superspeedway spawns controversy and last fall's Sprint Cup race was no different. For Tony Stewart fans, it was the perfect ending to an arduous day. For many in the stands of the Amp Energy 500, it was pure chaos and confusion. Regan Smith, who lined up second for a green-white-checkered finish, crossed the double-yellow line at the bottom of the track after a push from his then teammate Paul Menard. But because Smith went below the line, which is considered out of bounds at both the restrictor-plate circuits, NASCAR scored the rookie 18th. Six months later, Smith isn't bitter. After qualifying sixth for Sunday's Aaron's 499, he should actually feel vindicated. But Smith is too humble to gloat. Hopefully, that will come on raceday when he plans on letting his driving do the talking. "I really don't think that winning would have changed anything," Smith said. "We were within three or four races at the end of the season. We had just one sponsor coming back for four cars." But with the transition that Dale Earnhardt Inc. experienced over the last five months when it merged with Chip Ganassi Racing and shut down two of its teams, Smith actually feels fortunate to have a Sprint Cup ride with Furniture Row Racing. "Things actually worked out better for me," he said. "We're building to get back to racing full-time. I don't like being at the track when I'm not driving. But knowing what the schedule is forces us to focus on what's really important." Similar to the Wood Brothers' schedule of concentrating on tracks that make geographical and fiscal sense, the Denver-based Furniture Row has limited plans for 2009. Although the team initially announced a 12-race schedule, owner Barney Visser added Texas, then Dover and just recently New Hampshire — tracks where Smith excels. Visser, who debuted the No. 78 Chevrolet at the fall race in Phoenix in 2005, is committed to keeping the program going even though he's currently running the cars out of his own pocket. "Everybody loves Regan," Visser said. "We loved Joe (Nemechek), too. He fit us like a glove, but Regan doesn't give up. He doesn't give an inch on the racetrack. We may lose spots in the pits, but he never gives up any spots on the racetrack. Everyone can see that." Smith said if he's losing spots on the racetrack, he's not doing his job. His record of completing all 45 career Cup races without a DNF is proof of his ability to fight, but fight smart. "Last year was tough," Smith said. "It taught me that I have to fight for everything you get — every position you get." This season, Smith is paired with fellow fighter Jay Guy. Guy, a longtime Nationwide Series crew chief, left the Wood Brothers and Charlotte at the start of last year for an opportunity at the Cup level. "Regan brings a lot of fire to the team," Guy said. "He's at the beginning of his career and he has a lot of energy that conveys to the team." Guy calls the current pit crew situation "a work in progress." Furniture Row is working in concert with Kevin Harvick Inc. to share the crew between KHI's Nationwide effort and Furniture Row Racing. Smith said his relationship with Guy is based on mutual respect, but there's a sprinkle of sarcasm between the teammates that keeps the bond light. The driver and crew chief were actually friends before Guy moved to Denver. "Our communication is great," Smith said. "Jay's done a really good job of making changes that work at least 80 percent of the time. "I feel confident that we can get this car going full-time next year."

To block or not to block

When cars are racing in excess of 180 mph, judgment must be exercised when deciding if it's worth the risk of blocking.
If the bumper in front proves too wide, the car closing up behind may or may not have time to stop. "You've got to be careful how much of a run the guy has behind you and how much you want to block," said Greg Biffle, who starts second. "That's really what it boils down to. "If a guy is coming at a pretty good speed behind you, it's hard to block him, but blocking is part of racing — you just have to be smart about how you go about it and not be too aggressive about blocking." Tony Stewart, who won the fall race and rolls off 29th on Sunday, says the drivers have to take responsibility for what they do. "If you come across someone's nose and it spins you because of it, you're responsible for your car," Stewart said. "It's the driver that makes the move."

New and improved

Juan Pablo Montoya's first career pole came at an unexpected venue — Talladega Superspeedway. Yes, Montoya finished second in this race last year, but lest we forget, the "E" in EGR stands for Earnhardt. Dale Earnhardt Inc. superspeedway cars have always been stout. Former DEI technical director/engineer Dave Charpentier and his crew remained through the transition and continue to do a masterful job of detailing the cars for Daytona and Talladega — despite the loss of fabrication specialists Dave McKay and Warren Brosel to Richard Childress Racing. Earnhardt's alliance with Childress to build the ECR (Earnhardt Childress Racing) engine package has also been a coup for Montoya. Before the season started, he was encouraged by his new horsepower. "I think their engine package for the plate tracks, I don't think they put as much effort into it as ECR does and as DEI has done in the past," said teammate Martin Truex Jr., who rolls off third on Sunday. "I think that's what really stepped up their program. They basically had cars that are very similar to ours when we went to Daytona and they both ran really well with our engines." Montoya admits, "You haven't seen the full potential of what we can do. We haven't been able to put together the unified car yet." Montoya would like to see "a common car" between the two teams. He believes EGR is getting closer to that goal. "We're a contender," Montoya said. "I feel we can make the Chase, but we're still on the bubble." Crew chief Brian Pattie agrees with Montoya's assessment that the No. 42 Chevrolet is a fifth- to eighth-place car. Pattie feels with Montoya's talent and commitment the team will be in good position for the postseason. "Things are way better than last year," Pattie said. "We just can't make mistakes. We win as a team and lose as a team." On a related note, the No. 42 team recruited T.J. Ford as its new jackman. Ford previously worked for the No. 8 team, which was recently parked because of a lack of sponsors.
Tagged: Paul Menard, Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart

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