It was all set to become the latest example of why Regan Smith enjoyed such a big lead in the NASCAR Nationwide Series driver standings — and why those trying to catch him would need some help.
After 54 laps navigating the twists of the Road America course in Wisconsin last Saturday, Smith was running in the top five, about to record what would have been his 12th consecutive top-10 finish.
One chain-reaction, last-lap crash and subsequent 32nd-place finish later, Smith's 58-point lead heading into the race was cut more than in half.
The 29-year-old JR Motorsports driver did not initially digest well that one bad moment erased so much good.
What Smith has tried to remind himself of heading into Friday night's Feed The Children 300 at Kentucky Speedway is that he and his team were fortunate to have earned the luxury of being able to absorb a mulligan.
"You can't deny the fact that that was a huge point hit, but with that said, that's why we worked hard to have the big lead and strive to have the big lead," Smith said during a teleconference. "I would much rather be the one being chased from 28 points out in front than the one chasing from 28 points behind, if that makes sense."
After beginning the year with a couple top-15 runs at Daytona and Phoenix, Smith and his No. 7 Chevrolet have demonstrated the same consistency that made the 2008 Sprint Cup Series Rookie of the Year the first rookie driver to finish every race entered in his first full season. Anchored by victories at Talladega and Michigan, Smith has posted an average finish of 8.5 in 14 Nationwide races this season and has been the points leader since May 4.
The wild action on superspeedways has been a comfort zone for Smith's style with 14 of his 18 career Nationwide top-10 efforts coming over such tracks. That he and his team were able to show speed on last week's road course, where he has limited experience, reinforced his maturity as a driver.
"Certainly, as any team thinks, there's areas we can always do better at, but we've done a really good job of being consistent and taking what the race and what the tracks will give us," said Smith, who has 11 top-10 finishes in the Cup Series, including a win in the 2011 Southern 500 at Darlington. "We're to the point now that the cars they've been putting under me this year, I know what to expect.
"With that said, I think that confidence is almost as important as the momentum. I feel like we can make up for any up or down momentum swings because we're that confident as a race team."
Smith hasn't finished in the top 10 in five prior starts in Kentucky but did earn his lone career pole at the 1.5-mile tri-oval in 2007.
Friday will mark his first competitive visit to the track since then. His test ventures over the surface have told him the Sparta venue is nothing like it was six years ago.
He would like to think the same applies to himself and his skill set.
"Me as a driver since then, I think I've matured a lot, understand these cars better, understand a lot what I'm looking for my car to do better, and it can help us get to the point where we can have that speed a little bit easier than what maybe I could back then," Smith said. "With that team at that time, I felt that team had similar chemistry to what this team started the year off with. Now, as it has built, this team's got great chemistry to this point in the year. I feel like we all communicate well together, and we're all to the point where we can clearly almost fill each other's sentences in."
FRIDAY'S EVENTS AT KENTUCKY SPEEDWAY
10 a.m. — Speedway Gate 15 opens
11:30 a.m. — NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400 practice
1:30 p.m. — NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400 final practice
2 p.m. — All Speedway gates and infield fan zone open
3:30 p.m. — NASCAR Nationwide Series Feed The Children 300 qualifying
5:10 p.m. — NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400 qualifying
7 p.m. — NASCAR Nationwide Series Feed The Children 300 pre-race celebrations
7:30 p.m. — NASCAR Nationwide Series Feed The Children 300N
NATIONWIDE SERIES UPDATE
Feb. 23 — DRIVE4COPD 300 (Tony Stewart)
March 2 — Dollar General 200, Avondale, Ariz. (Kyle Busch)
March 9 — Sam's Town 300, Las Vegas (Sam Hornish Jr.)
March 16 — Jeff Foxworthy's Grit Chips 300, Bristol, Tenn. (Kyle Busch)
March 23 — Royal Purple 300, Fontana, Calif. (Kyle Busch)
April 12 — O'Reilly Auto Parts 300, Fort Worth, Texas (Kyle Busch)
April 26 — ToyotaCare 250, Richmond, Va. (Brad Keselowski)
May 4 — AARON'S 312, Talladega, Ala. (Regan Smith)
May 10 — Darlington 200, Darlington, S.C. (Kyle Busch)
May 25 — History 300, Concord, N.C. (Kyle Busch)
June 1 — 5-Hour Energy 200, Dover, Del. (Joey Logano)
June 9 — DuPont Pioneer 250, Newton, Iowa (Trevor Bayne)
June 15 — Alliance Truck Parts 250, Brooklyn, Mich. (Regan Smith)
June 22 — Road America 200, Elkhart Lake, Wis. (A.J. Allmendinger)
June 28 — Feed The Children 300, Sparta, Ky.
July 5 — SUBWAY Jalapeno 250, Daytona Beach, Fla.
July 13 — F.W. Webb 200, Loudon, N.H.
July 21 — STP 300, Joliet, Ill.
July 27 — Indiana 250, Speedway, Ind.
Aug. 3 — U.S. Cellular 250, Newton, Iowa
Aug. 10 — ZIPPO 200, Watkins Glen, N.Y.
Aug. 17 — Nationwide Children's Hospital 200, Lexington, Ohio
Aug. 23 — Food City 250, Bristol, Tenn.
Aug. 31 — Atlanta 300, Hampton, Ga.
Sept. 6 — Virginia 529 College Savings 250, Richmond, Va.
Sept. 14 — Dollar General 300, Joliet, Ill.
Sept. 21 — Kentucky 300, Sparta, Ky.
Sept. 28 — Dover 200, Dover, Del.
Oct. 5 — Kansas Lottery 300, Kansas City, Kan.
Oct. 11 — Dollar General 300, Concord, N.C.
Nov. 2 — O'Reilly Auto Parts Challenge, Fort Worth, Texas
Nov. 9 — Great Clips 200, Avondale, Ariz.
Nov. 16 — Ford EcoBoost 300, Homestead, Fla.
1. Regan Smith 50711. Alex Bowman 382
2. Justin Allgaier 47912. Mike Bliss 365
3. Sam Hornish Jr.47713. Nelson Piquet Jr.359
4. Austin Dillon 46214. Travis Pastrana 321
5. Elliott Sadler 45915. Reed Sorenson 311
6. Parker Kligerman44716. Mike Wallace 281
7. Kyle Larson 44017. Eric McClure 260
8. Brian Scott 43918. Jeremy Clements249
9. Brian Vickers 43319. Joe Nemechek 213
10. Trevor Bayne 42120. Jeffrey Earnhardt210