DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Regan Smith had the checkered flag in sight at Daytona a year ago and a freight train of cars in his rearview mirror.
He moved high to throw a block on Brad Keselowski and it backfired badly. The desperate attempt to preserve the win triggered a 12-car accident, Kyle Larson's car sailed into the fence and debris from the wreck injured nearly 30 fans.
It was a racing accident, nobody's fault. But Smith was racked with guilt.
So it was sweet redemption Saturday when he nipped Keselowski at the finish line to win the Nationwide Series opener — finally, a year later — at Daytona International Speedway.
"I think it hurt him deeply that the fans were involved in the accident," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who along sister, Kelley and Rick Hendrick owns the JR Motorsports Chevrolet that Smith drove to victory.
"I think that he personally and privately (bore) some responsibility for his involvement in the crash, just being in the crash, to have someone in the grandstands get hurt had to affect him tremendously. That was definitely probably one of the toughest things he went through personally as a driver."
Smith said he went to dinner with Earnhardt after the accident and leaned on his boss.
"I'm fortunate that I've got a boss who has been in a lot of different situations in this sport and understands a lot of different things over the years in Dale," Smith said. "He just basically said 'You've got to shake it off, it's racing and no fault of anybody. Circumstances sometimes happen. He offered up a lot of good advice in that situation. It did bother me. I'd be lying if I said I didn't."
Nothing bothered Smith on Saturday.
He beat Keselowski by 0.013 for the second-closest finish at Daytona International Speedway and seventh closest in series history. It was the 300th victory for the Hendrick Motorsports engine shop.