CONCORD, N.C.—Though Regan Smith is one to downplay the pressure of stepping into Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ride, there’s no mistaking the breadth of the opportunity for the 29-year-old driver.
Recently ousted from Furniture Row Racing in favor of veteran Kurt Busch, Smith was hired to replace Earnhardt when the sport’s most popular driver was sidelined for at least two races by a concussion.
The weekend started slowly for Smith, who qualified 26th for Saturday night’s Bank of America 500 in Thursday’s time trials. By the end of Friday’s second practice, however, Smith was second only to Kyle Busch on the speed chart.
Smith, who had planned to drive the No. 51 Chevrolet of Hendrick Motorsports affiliate Phoenix Racing before he got the call to sub for Earnhardt, said a large part of the battle was getting used to a completely new environment.
“It’s just learning all the characteristics of this race car and what it’s capable of, how much I can lean on it, different things it can do in the corner,” Smith said Friday night after Happy Hour. “As much as anything, I’m just getting more and more comfortable in my surroundings in the car.
“Everything from the dashboard to the seat to where you’re positioned in the car is different for me this weekend than what I’ve been accustomed to for four years, so it’s getting better. Obviously, I think every time I get on the race track, it’s going to continue to get better. And (Saturday’s) a whole new ball game.”