DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) – Regan Smith’s day started earlier than usual Saturday and won’t end anytime soon.
Just hours after replacing suspended Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kurt Busch in the No. 41 Chevrolet, Smith got fitted for the seat and had to get up to speed with the team and the car.
Crew members used a thick piece of black tape to cover Busch’s name above the car window. Shortly afterward, Smith climbed in and was one of the first to turn laps in the final practice session for the Daytona 500.
“There are a lot of people that have had their hands on that race car, have worked hard on that race car and they deserve to still have the opportunity to go out and win that race,” Smith said. “And that’s what we’re going to try and do for them.”
Smith had a 90-minute practice to get accustomed to the car, his crew and the draft at Daytona International Speedway. Then he had to qualify and race in the Xfinity season opener later in the day.
Busch was suspended indefinitely Friday after a judge said the 2004 Cup champion almost surely choked and beat a former girlfriend last fall. The suspension came two days before the Daytona 500, prompting Chevrolet to cut ties with Busch and leading Stewart-Haas to switch to Smith.
Busch has appealed, and the hearing was scheduled to begin Saturday at noon at NASCAR headquarters – just across the street from the famed 2 ½ mile superspeedway.
Regardless of the outcome, SHR plans to stick with Smith for the “Great American Race.”
“I believe the team had a plan in place, whenever that was, and I spoke to somebody this past week at one point and that was about the extent of what I knew about was going on,” Smith said. “I’ve been kind of focused on what I had to do to get ready for our season on the other side. Really, I haven’t paid much attention otherwise.”
Crew chief Tony Gibson said the team would be “OK” despite the last-minute shuffle.
“We just want to make sure he knows where all the switches are, the mirror, is comfortable and not put ourselves in any danger,” Gibson said. “We absolutely have the same expectations. He’s a fantastic drafter, he’s proven that before. He can win. We’re expecting to win.”
It’s unclear what SHR will do beyond Daytona.
“We haven’t spoken about anything beyond that,” SHR executive vice president Brett Frood said.
Smith drove co-owner Tony Stewart’s No. 14 car last season at Watkins Glen after Stewart’s short-track accident resulted in the death of a fellow driver. Smith, who has one Cup victory, also filled in two races in 2012 while Dale Earnhardt Jr. recovered from a concussion.
“He’s a good fit, he’s in the family and he’ll get us through this week,” SHR competition director Greg Zipadelli said. “It’s a shame we are going through this, but it’s what we are dealt. We’ll make the best of it and see where it goes from here.”
Busch has been front and center since arriving at Daytona on Feb. 12, when he curtly answered questions about awaiting the judge’s decision. He grumbled about how long the process was taking and was sarcastic while accusing reporters of working for TMZ.
Two days later, he orchestrated a photo opportunity with his new girlfriend on pit road before an exhibition race. As he posed, smiling alongside Ashley Van Metre, he summoned photographers to take their picture.
The judge granted ex-girlfriend Patricia Driscoll’s request for the no-contact order Monday, and three days later, Busch’s legal team asked for an appeal on the grounds it had new evidence to present.
Busch has maintained he did not assault Driscoll, but merely cupped her face as he requested her to leave his motorhome.
Later Thursday, Busch dropped back in the field with two laps remaining to push SHR teammate Danica Patrick around the track in their qualifying race, helping Patrick make the Daytona 500.
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