Regan Smith never had won a race until he held off a hard-charging Carl Edwards to capture the Southern 500. So where were the cameras pointed when Smith finally got to celebrate his first checkered flag? Why, focused on the brewing fight between Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, of course.
In NASCAR's latest round of the feud, Busch, upset with how Harvick had raced him just a few laps from the finish, wrecked Harvick with four laps to go. After the race ended, Harvick pulled down pit road right in front of Busch, stopped his car and, after a few minutes, got out to confront Busch who was still sitting in his car. As Harvick approached the No. 18, Busch tapped on Harvick's bumper, sending the car rolling into the pit road wall. Harvick stuck his hand inside Busch's window netting as if to take a swing, but was rebuffed when Busch accelerated away.
"Just uncalled for, just unacceptable racing," Busch said afterward, not taking any blame for what transpired. "I gave him room off of [Turn] 2; I didn't get the room."
Busch later explained of the incident on pit road that he was just trying to "get away from the situation" and that he pushed Harvick's car out of the way because he had two choices: sit there and wait to get punched in the face by Harvick or push his car out of the way and get out of there. He chose Option B.
"I made a judgment call there and it wasn't one of the best choices that I had, but I pushed his car out of the way on pit road and unfortunately there was men walking down pit road," he explained. "I hate it that somebody could have gotten hurt, but I was just trying to get away from it and get back to my hauler and go on with my own business."
Both drivers were immediately called to the NASCAR hauler. Harvick had little to say of the short meeting with NASCAR officials but when asked if things were settled between the two said, "You saw the end," inferring that it clearly is not over.
The two have a history dating back to last year's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway when Harvick purposefully "parked" Busch. Prior to this season, Busch admitted that he hadn't forgotten about it.
"If something happens [involving Harvick] where it won't hurt me … whoops," Busch said before the Daytona 500.
Saturday night's wreck won't hurt Busch, at least not yet. He still managed to finish 11th – a disappointing result in that he appeared to be the car to beat for much of the race until a tire issue put him a lap down – and he stays third in the standings.
But he could take a hit in the wallet and possibly in the points. Spinning Harvick would have drawn him only a slap on the wrist, but NASCAR likely won't overlook pushing an unmanned vehicle into motion. Penalties usually are doled out on Tuesday, and if one comes it will be worth paying attention to as this would be the first penalty under NASCAR's new points system.
As for the race itself, Smith won by taking a gamble. When Jeff Burton's smoking car brought out a caution with just 10 laps to go, the leaders all pitted. Smith, running eighth at the time, did not and assumed the lead from Edwards.
Despite racing on old tires, Smith held on to the lead rather easily. On the final lap, he smacked the wall on the backstretch but still kept in front of Edwards.
"I hit the fence at Turn 2," Smith explained. "How hard was it? I thought I hit it hard, anyways. Never checked it up. … [Edwards] wasn't able to make the run and we won the Southern 500. That's pretty awesome."
The checkered flag actually was the second for Smith but the first he got to celebrate. Three years ago he beat everyone to the line at Talladega only to have NASCAR determine that he had gone below the yellow line to pass Tony Stewart – a move that is illegal. Instead of winning, Smith was credited with an 18th-place finish.
This one he gets to keep, and it's a popular win. Furniture Row is an underfunded, single-car team competing out of Denver. They have 64 employees; Hendrick Motorsports has over 500. Single-car teams aren't supposed to win races, especially not the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, one of NASCAR's most hallowed tracks. In stick-and-ball terms, this is Jimmy Chitwood leading tiny Hickory High to the state championship.
"Winning here to me means more to me than that win [at Talladega] could have ever meant," Smith said. "With this team, with the hard work, racing out of Colorado, the things that have gone on, everybody said for how long, 'You can't race outside of Charlotte, the 20 mile radius where all the teams are, you can't do it.' We've been doing it every week. … I don't think I'll go to bed tonight thinking about Talladega, that's for sure."