The NASCAR XFINITY Series regular has been named the replacement driver for Kyle Larson, who fainted during an autograph session Saturday at Martinsville Speedway and remains under observation at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, N.C.
Smith, who has served as a fill-in driver on separate occasions for Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch over the past eight months, will pilot the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates Chevrolet during Sunday’s STP 500.
The JR Motorsports driver said he received a text last night alerting him of Larson’s situation. After that text, Smith headed to the Ganassi shop to be fitted for a seat, then went in a holding pattern until the team determined their plan of action.
"I got wind that something was going on last night and we had a plan in effect if, for some reason, Kyle couldn’t race today," Smith said before Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway. "I didn’t know anything until this morning when I woke up. I had a text message when I woke up this morning and headed this way."
Smith drove from the Charlotte area early Sunday morning and went to work with the team as soon as he arrived. He met with crew chief Chris Heroy, No. 42 crew members and his teammate for the day, Jamie McMurray, to go over the plan for Sunday’s race.
"It’s just normal race preparation, going over where they’ve been this weekend, going over how the car is going to react, stuff they’ve been doing," he said. "I talked to Jamie a little bit about his car, the tires and what to expect out of the track in general. We were fortunate to have a little time last night to work with the seat and try to get me as comfortable as we could with what we had to work with at the last minute."
The team had to swap out one of Larson’s seats for one of McMurray’s, but also had to make further adjustments to make Smith comfortable. They also swapped out Larson’s pedal assembly for McMurray’s, but also had to adjust on those.
The No. 42 team certainly has their work cut out for them throughout Sunday’s race. With Smith stepping in at the last minute, he will have to drop to the rear of the field for the start of the race, and hit a track he has not raced on since April 2013.
"There’s going to be a lot of challenges today," Smith admitted. "I haven’t been here in a while, for one. It’s a place where when you have to start 43rd, like we do, the leader’s going to be there quick. I think one of our struggles will be staying on the lead lap early on. If we can do that and maybe find a position where we’re able to get track position, then great, we’ll take advantage of those when we can."
Now a go-to, fill-in driver for Sprint Cup Series teams, Smith said he does not anticipate situations like this arising, was working on his new home on Saturday and planned on watching the race with his family from the couch before getting the call from Ganassi team officials.
"I’d rather be racing than watching on TV, so I think I’m OK with that," the former full-time Sprint Cup driver said. "I’ve made it clear I want to get back to doing this on a more permanent basis on the Cup side. If being the guy that everyone calls on helps lead to that down the road, then that’s great."
At the same time, he admitted that subbing brings about unique challenges.
"These situations aren’t easy," he said. "You’re hopping in somebody else’s car, somebody else’s setup, somebody else’s team, somebody else’s guys, and trying to plug yourself in as best you can and do as good as you can for that team and those guys. With that said, you’ve got to make the most of it."
Smith has nine previous starts at the 0.53-mile short track, with an average finish of 25.2 and a best finish of 13th in October 2011 while driving for Furniture Row Racing.