Long praised as one of the sport’s underrated talents by those in the Sprint Cup garage, Regan Smith enters 2012 having gone a long way to validate that sentiment. He finished 2011 with a string of firsts while ending the year a career-best 26th in points. One of five first-time winners in 2011, Smith had perhaps the most impressive win of the group considering his underfunded single-car Furniture Row Racing team. Add the fact that he held off one of the best in Carl Edwards at Darlington, of all places, and the feat was all the more notable. Smith’s other top 5 also occurred in a top-tier event, when he placed third at the Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis.
Those numbers leave the driver in the best position of his still-young career in 2012, as well as the team he’s chosen to stick by over the long-term despite its “David vs. Goliath” credentials. Not only were the win, two top 5s and five top 10s the best stats of Smith’s Cup career, but they were also the first in all three categories for Furniture Row Racing since the team was formed in 2005. In fact, the operation had only one top 10 to its credit until the 2011 breakthrough.
Based in Colorado, the organization is a lone ranger on the Cup circuit, far from the Charlotte hub, which creates a daunting task for a young driver to keep pushing this team to new heights. For years, FRR has discussed an expansion to a two-car program, seemingly necessary for its development (no one-car team has ever made the Chase), but funding has prevented that. Considering that Smith’s contract with the team runs through 2012, this year is doubly important for all involved. If FRR’s performance regresses, Smith may look to the free agent market, where he would be an attractive option to a larger operation looking to retool or expand.
The good news is that the team has exceptionally reliable equipment, as a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing provides it with both chassis and Earnhardt-Childress engine power. Smith failed to finish due to equipment failure only once last year, and having reliable racecars and engines is the first step to getting to the next level. CSX Transportation and Agro-Culture Liquid Fertilizers have also jumped on as associate sponsors, especially valuable additions to a team who is virtually self-sponsored. The most successful driver/crew chief combination in team history remains intact, as veteran Pete Rondeau returns to FRR, providing experienced leadership while proving that his failed stint with Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2005 may not have been solely the crew chief’s fault.
Furniture Row Racing may finally be figuring out how to be successful in the Sprint Cup ranks after its 2011 campaign, and Smith could be the one to ride that wave into the future. But if 2012 doesn’t bring continued growth for the team, this underdog story could end the same way many do — with Goliath paying David to join forces, leaving his slingshot (FRR) behind to wither away.
What the Competition is Saying
Much like Paul Menard, Smith took the step from an occasional contender to a race winner, taking the trophy in last year’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. The independent, underfunded team has Smith at a disadvantage to his competition, leaving one insider to question, “Was it just one great night, or can Furniture Row get more consistent?”
“Probably one of the nicest and most personable guys in the garage,” another says. “I think he is one of the most underrated drivers out there. Kudos to Furniture Row for sticking with this young man, running the team full-time, against the odds of the truck maybe getting stuck in the snow on the way to Daytona — and it all paid off with the win at Darlington.”
Top 5s: 2
Top 10s: 5
Laps Led: 36
Laps Completed: 9,864
Lead Lap Finishes: 19
Bonus Points: 9
Races Led: 6
Average Start: 14.8
Average Finish: 21.5
After First 26 Races: 26th
Final Points Standing: 26th
Driver Rating: 71.1 (25th)