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Regan Smith 2013 Year in Review

NASCAR.com

Regan Smith couldn't have looked more surprised when he was announced the winner of the 2013 Most Popular Driver Award in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.

An hour later, having had a little time to reflect, Smith told reporters the honor was both humbling and a bit empowering.

"They told a bunch of us that we were in the top five but I didn't anticipate we'd actually be the one that got it," Smith said backstage at the year-end awards banquet in Miami Beach, Fla., with a nod to his team owner and perennial NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"Obviously a big thank you to all the Regan Smith fans and Junior Nation fans out there. I think the power of Junior Nation has spoken again and I'm very appreciative of that.

"It's a good nation," he said smiling. "And I think the Regan Smith fan base has grown because of Junior Nation so that's good. And whatever the future holds, whether it's here for 10 years or somewhere else, certainly hope I can keep all those fans with me."

While it's no secret the former Sprint Cup Series driver -- and 2011 Darlington winner -- would one day like to return to the Cup Series, he is spending his time in the JR Motorsports No. 7 Chevrolet reminding people why he is not only a popular driver, but a successful one that deserves that shot at Cup again one day.

First, he has some Nationwide business to attend to, however.

Although he finished third in the final Nationwide Series standings, the hefty 72-point deficit to champion Austin Dillon is misleading of Smith's season. He led the points standings for 10 consecutive weeks on the heels of a victory at Talladega Superspeedway in the spring, a stretch that was bolstered by another win at Michigan in the summer.

In fact, Smith was the only full-time Nationwide Series driver with multiple wins in 2013 and one of only three Nationwide Series regulars to reach Victory Lane at all.

He led eventual championship runner-up Sam Hornish Jr. by 58 points at one point during that 10-race stretch, which included eight top-10 finishes.

Smith's confidence also received a big boost with a pair of early top-10 finishes in the Sprint Cup Series driving James Finch's No. 51 Chevy -- highlighted by a seventh-place finish in the Daytona 500 followed later by a sixth-place effort at Talladega the day after he won the Nationwide race there.

For 16 weeks during the middle of the season, Smith was ranked first or second in points. But, then things got away from him and the team.

A 32nd-place finish at Road America followed by a 30th-place showing at Kentucky late in the summer left Smith vulnerable in the standings. He closed out the year with three top-10s in the final eight races capped by a frustrating 29th-place finish at the Homestead-Miami Speedway season finale.

"I think we learned a lot through the middle part of the season. It was tough for us to give up that big points lead as quick as we did," Smith said analyzing the situation. "We didn't anticipate that happening and I'd say it caught us off-guard.

"I don't want to say we got desperate but we started doing things a little differently than we had done to get the lead, from a standpoint of our mentality and how we thought about things. I was probably more guilty of that as a driver than anybody. In my years of racing I hadn't been in a situation in quite some time to be racing for points like that and have a shot at a championship. There were some things I forgot as far as how a championship played out. Unfortunately, no matter how many times somebody tells you this is how it's going to be, you still have to experience it.

"And that middle part of the season is when a lot of that happened and then again later in the year, we started getting even more desperate when we were 20 points out, and 20 points became 30 points and 30 became 40 and it just kept growing because of small little errors or small mental mistakes. There's areas we can do better and we will."

Smith said the whole experience gives him confidence for the 2014 Nationwide championship run, even if he is his own harshest critic. He realizes that he is in prime position driving for a team like JR Motorsports, which has title-worthy resources and standards.

And considering the top two championship contenders, Dillon and Hornish, won't return in 2014, the high expectations land squarely on Smith's shoulders -- something he's keenly aware of.

"Our goal is to get the championship and we didn't get it," Smith said, offering a candid assessment. "We did a lot of things that we got an A and A-plus at but overall grade when you look at the end of the year -- I'm very much a goal-oriented person, our goal was the championship and we didn't reach that.

"Was the year a total failure? Absolutely not. We had the wins, had a lot of great runs and learned a lot, but ultimately we didn't reach the goal we were striving for and that's going to be the goal again next year."

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