Spending the past five seasons in Sprint Cup, Smith returned to Nationwide full-time this year, driving the No. 7 Chevrolet for JR Motorsports, which is co-owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr. Smith won the 2012 Nationwide season-finale at Homestead, Fla. in his stellar debut with JRM. It was also his first win in the series.
Smith came to Talladega only one point behind Sam Hornish Jr., but Hornish finished 25th after being caught up in a big wreck on the backstretch during the closing laps and fell 27 points out of the lead. Smith has scored six top-10 finishes in the first eight Nationwide races this season.
"We've had a lot of work that's gone on during the offseason and during the season, and these guys (No. 7 team) have been working hard week in and week out," Smith said. "As a team, it's just been a steady progression. We feel like we're getting better and better."
This is also the first time a driver from JRM has been atop the point rankings. The team began competing in NASCAR's second-tier series in 2005. Brad Keselowski, who drove for JRM during part of the 2007 season and all of '08 and '09, went as high as second in the standings during the '08 season.
"I'm really happy for Regan and the whole group," Earnhardt Jr. said. "They've been working so hard and so many late nights trying to get faster and trying to find that extra bit of speed that they need. They're trying to be as good as they can be. You can really see the effort between (crew chief) Greg (Ives) and the whole group in the shop during the week. There is so much work they're doing, trying to learn and trying to gel as fast as they can, because they know that they have a great opportunity this year."
Darlington has become a very special place for Smith. The Cato, N.Y. native scored his first career Sprint Cup victory at this racetrack in May 2011.
"There is just something about Darlington," he said. "Every time I pull in there, I feel good and I enjoy it. The best way I can describe Darlington is it's the racing equivalent to Fenway Park or Wrigley Field. It's so legendary with the history and tradition there. It's almost like you can see that all the time, the history, and the age that is in that place. I got a really cool parking spot in 'Champion's Alley' after my Cup win there too. I always make sure to take a picture of it when I'm there."
Smith has not competed in a Nationwide race at Darlington since 2007. His best finish in four previous starts here is 12th, which came in '07.
Forty-three teams are on the preliminary entry list for the VFW Sport Clips Help a Hero 200. Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne and Joey Logano are those drivers scheduled to compete in this event. Logano is the defending race winner.
Series: NASCAR Nationwide. Date: Friday, May 10. Race: VFW Sport Clips Help a Hero 200. Site: Darlington Raceway. Track: 1.366-mile oval. Start time: 7:30 p.m. ET. Laps: 147. Miles: 200.8. 2012 Winner: Joey Logano. Television: ESPN 2. Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.