Smith shines filling in for Junior
Despite the treacherous conditions at Kansas Speedway on Sunday, the new track offered several non-Chase for the Sprint Cup contenders a chance to shine.
Regan Smith posted his fourth top-10 finish of the season while filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt was recuperating following symptoms of a concussion by sitting out the races at Charlotte and Kansas.
Smith, 29, wheeled the No. 88 Chevrolet from 39th to seventh on Sunday.
“Great work Regan, great work, man. I really enjoyed working with you,” said crew chief Steve Letarte. “You’re a great race car driver.”
“You guys did a hell of a job today – the past two weeks,” Smith replied. “I really appreciate the hard work. I know that was tough circumstances. Thanks.”
Aric Almirola was racing in earnest on Sunday in an attempt to save his ride with Richard Petty Motorsports. Almirola started fifth and then led 69 of the first 121 laps before he cut a tire on Lap 172 and spun on the backstretch.
It would not be his only tire issue of the day. On Lap 214, Almirola experienced a vicious wreck when he blew a tire entering Turn 4. The final blow ended his day. He finished 29th after leading the race on three different occasions.
“It was a big hit and I lost my breath there for a minute so I had to collect my thoughts,” Almirola said. “I am disappointed. I have never in my entire life had a race car that good. It was so fast and so easy to drive. All the guys on this Farmland Ford Fusion did a great job and we just had a really great race car.
“All the guys worked really hard all weekend and we had a spectacular car. I hate that it ends like this but I have always been told you have to give a few away before you can win one and I feel like we certainly gave one away today.”
AJ Allmendinger made the most of his second chance that team owner James Finch afforded the driver the last two weeks.
Allmendinger had a solid run in the No. 51 at Charlotte Motor Speedway prior to a pit-road violation knocked him to a 24th-place finish. At Kansas Speedway, Allmendinger qualified 13th and was running in the top 10 when his right front tire blew and he slammed into the Turn 3 wall.
"It was getting tight the last couple of laps, but I just thought that was how the racetrack was going,” Allmendinger said. “I had that for the first run. Then I went in Turn 1, and felt it get really tight. I actually radioed in and said ‘I’m pitting this lap’. I tried to check up down the back straightaway and try to save it and make sure it didn’t blow. Unfortunately it did. I just feel bad for everybody at Phoenix Racing.
“The car was really fast. We were running so well. I thought we could have an easy top 10, if not a top five. Just so disappointed. These guys work so hard. This small group of guys, they’ve been through so much this year. They work their butts off. I really enjoyed this opportunity.”
After completing NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program following a NASCAR suspension, Allmendinger, 30, was offered a chance to sub for Smith at Phoenix Racing. Despite earlier reports on Sunday, Earnhardt has not yet been cleared for competition next weekend at Martinsville. However, if he is, Smith is expected to return to the No. 51 car.
“It has meant the world to get back in this sport,” Allmendinger added. “I love this sport, and I hope I’m back next week. But if not, I thank James, Steve Barkdoll and everybody for what they’ve done."