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Normally mild-mannered and armed with a smile, a decidedly perturbed looking Regan Smith climbed out of his JR Motorsports Chevy on Dover International Speedway's pit road following the May 31 NASCAR Nationwide Series race and walked quickly and deliberately toward the garage.
He had finished 10th in the No. 7 Chevrolet -- the only NNS driver with top-10s in every single race this year. Beyond that, he took the checkered flag that afternoon as the series championship leader, four points ahead of Joe Gibbs Racing's Elliott Sadler, 22 points in front of JRM teammate Chase Elliott and 27 ahead of Roush Fenway Racing's Trevor Bayne entering Saturday's Ollie's Bargain Outlet 250 at Michigan International Speedway.
It may have looked like a positive outcome to others, but Smith clearly wasn't feeling satisfied after the race.
"Tenth place ain't gonna win a championship,'' Smith said walking down pit road. "We've got to get better. Consistency is great, but at the end of the day it means nothing if you're not consistently farther forward.
"We'll keep working hard at it."
Such is the 2014 NASCAR Nationwide Series championship battle. Only twice in 12 races this year has the leader held an advantage of 10 points or more in the rankings. The typical margin is closer to five.
Smith, Sadler and two-time winner Elliott are the only full-time Nationwide drivers to win this season. And that is what is separating them right now.
Bayne finished second at Dover, for example, and was feeling like he left something on the table.
"Having fast race cars will make it easier to make the gains in points,'' he said after the race. "But I feel like we need to get a win, with or without points. To be competitive at this level, you need to get to Victory Lane.
"That's why on days like today, you get a little greedy. When you get this close and finish second, you want just a little more and get to Victory Lane."
Even acknowledging he's just 12 races into his rookie season, Elliott -- the season's only two-time winner among championship-eligible drivers -- was also more frustrated than satisfied in his first NNS visit to Dover. You would have thought he finished 30th instead of fifth.
"I've got to do a better job,'' the recent high school grad said post-race. "I'm proud of the effort we gave; I feel like we had a car capable of winning the race. We have to make sure we try to improve."
This weekend's stop at Michigan kicks off an 18-week schedule of consecutive race weekends where all the title contenders surely expect competition as hot as the summer temperatures.
"I think consistency is going to pay off especially as we get to the road courses and superspeedway races this summer,'' Bayne said. "As close as we are, within 30 points, one bad race for those guys can bring them right back."
Historically speaking, Michigan may not prove to be the venue for his competitors' slip-ups.
Smith is the defending race winner. Sadler's best finish is seventh (in 2010) and he's never had a top-five. Bayne has two top-fives in four starts here.
This will be Elliott's first race ever on the super-fast two-miler. However, his two wins -- at Texas and Darlington, S.C. -- came in his first races there, too, as Bayne playfully reminded him at Dover.
"Leading up to this point we've had just a few consecutive races, scattered with off-weekends,'' Elliott said. "It will be a busy few months, but I'm personally looking forward to being able to race every weekend without the breaks in between. For me, getting into a consistent rhythm is extremely important. With this stretch I'll be able to find my groove. Michigan looks to be a very fast and exciting race track for these Nationwide cars.''
His teammate Smith said he's ready to get back out there as well, apparently looking for his tightly defined version of redemption on the heels of a perfect 12-for-12 in top-10s and the championship lead.
That's just how competitive this series is.
"It was good to have a weekend to take a breath before we hit this long summer stretch,'' Smith said this week. "There is a lot of racing coming up and our TaxSlayer.com team is committed to improving on our performance. We've run well, but we can do better and the competition is fierce this year. Every race is going to matter before it's all said and done. So it's important we get all we can every weekend.
"I'm excited for Michigan. Heading back there as the defending race winner gives you a lot of confidence."
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