Various drivers talk about how they ran during the Smith's 350 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Matt Crafton comments on his chance at a win dashed again, while others comment on strong top-five finishes.
Crafton: 'It was very, very tough, but that's what we get paid to do' SHOP: Buy Daytona 500 gear RELATED: Get full race results " Series standings DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- NASCAR's first Sprint Cup Series race since 2001 without a driver named Busch in the field featured two high-profile substitutes in stock-car racing's highest-profile event. In the end, keeping a low profile worked out for both late-hour fill-ins. Both Matt Crafton and Regan Smith had hopes for higher finishes from their Daytona 500 experience Sunday at Daytona International Speedway, but each gave their teams some solace amid the Daytona Speedweeks disarray with clean, respectable results. Smith -- a former Sprint Cup Series regular, now a title hopeful in the NASCAR XFINITY Series -- finished 16th behind the wheel of the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 41 Chevrolet as a late substitute for Kurt Busch, who was suspended indefinitely by NASCAR for his off-the-track legal issues. Crafton, the two-time defending champion of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, made his Sprint Cup debut on the sport's biggest stage, finishing 18th in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota in place of Kyle Busch, who remains sidelined indefinitely after suffering multiple lower leg injuries in Saturday's XFINITY Series opener. Smith's seventh Daytona 500 was hampered by an ill-handling car, made worse by one, a lack of practice time after being named Kurt Busch's replacement late Friday night, and two, weather conditions far warmer than the rest of the week leading up to the Great American Race. "Started off really tight with the race car and never got it turning," said Smith, who made his 173rd Sprint Cup start Sunday. "I don't know, kind of frustrating. I actually anticipated a much better day and nothing much more to show for it. Those guys did a nice job all weekend but we just plowed through the corners." Still, Smith managed to keep the car straight in the midst of increasingly intense racing in the aerodynamic draft during the final laps, drawing praise from Tony Gibson, the team's veteran crew chief. SHR shifted Gibson over to the No. 41 team with three races remaining last season in an effort to build some early chemistry with Busch leading into 2015. When Busch's suspension was handed down Friday and both options for appeals were exhausted Saturday, Gibson and Co. were forced to uproot their original plan for starting the year with momentum. "It's tough on guys," Gibson said. "We were all so pumped up at the beginning of the season. We had three races last year and were really good, then we go to Vegas and have a tire test and he's just blistering fast. We come into here wanting to start off with a win or a top-five and get us going. Yeah, it's hard to keep morale up, but that's my job to be that coach and that guy that keeps everybody swinging, and that's my plan." Crafton became an even-later replacement for Kyle Busch, receiving a call at 7 p.m. ET Saturday night that he was the top pick for the interim Daytona 500 ride. Already back at his North Carolina home after racing in the Truck Series opener Friday night, Crafton was whisked back to Florida, fitted for the car and plugged in for his first Sprint Cup start. "Pretty gnarly," said Crafton, who lacked any benefit of practice but leaned instead on his 339 career truck starts. "It was very, very tough, but that's what we get paid to do -- drive race cars and figure it out quick. I felt fine, just my back from being in that seat hurt. Under yellows I would loosen up the belts as much as I could and just try to bow myself up in the seat just because my back was just cramped so unbelievably bad. We made it." With an unexpected driver change to start the season, JGR found itself in similar fettle to Stewart-Haas Racing. The Daytona 500 was intended to serve as a kickoff to the Gibbs' team's realignment of crew chiefs, in particular the pairing of Adam Stevens with Kyle Busch. Instead, the No. 18 team resorted to Plan B, even though the injured driver has already been lobbying from his hospital bed about making a hasty return. "Everybody is in high spirits to start this season. We got the wind taken out of our sails yesterday, but we've all been in communication with Kyle and we know that he's a strong person and he's going to come back stronger than ever," Stevens said. "Whatever the doctors tell him, he's probably going to shave about three or four weeks off of that and be beating on our door. I'm sure he'll be in my office sometime next week talking about how we're going to make this happen." The backup plan remains murky for both organizations once the Sprint Cup Series hits Atlanta Motor Speedway next weekend. In naming their Daytona 500 replacements, neither team went on to indicate who would drive their cars in the second race of the season. While that component of the 2015 campaign remains up in the air, both teams have some consolation of emerging from Daytona with better-than-middling results after making last-minute alterations behind the wheel. "When you have a bad finish at Daytona, it makes it really, really hard to overcome, so for us and the road we're traveling down right now, we want to log as many points as we can get and have that cushion there, so when Kurt comes back, we'll be ready to roll," Gibson said, adding that he'll prepare the No. 41 with an eye open for Busch's return. "That's the best we can do. We'll just take it one race at a time, one day at a time, and when they come down and tell me who's driving it each week, that's what we'll do, and we'll approach it like Kurt's driving it every week and we'll adjust on it and do the best we can." 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With new crew chief, JR Motorsports driver looks to defend 2014 Daytona win Play: NASCAR Fantasy Live DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- As last year's runner-up in the NASCAR XFINITY Series, Regan Smith has only one possible spot to move up the pecking order in the season-long standings. He'll make that effort by working with new crew chief Jason Burdett, starting a communication process that is more personal than one might think. "We go to the movies, we go to dinner … no, I'm just messing with you," Smith said during a playful moment at last week's NASCAR Media Day. "We skip through the park together. In all seriousness, we've spent quite a bit of time together just at the shop." The imagery, which could've been plucked from an online dating commercial, doesn't quite capture the early semblances of team chemistry for the JR Motorsports No. 7 Chevrolet group. But at the same time, Smith said the getting-to-know-you phase has been an important step in moving forward. "I think the season holds some change," Smith said. "New crew chief, some new guys coming in. We kept most of our team intact other than the crew chief position, so that's going to be a good thing. I think it holds a strong year and a solid year that needs to be stronger than last year was. That means only one position that we can go from where we were." The 31-year-old veteran's journey begins with Saturday's season-opening Alert Today Florida 300 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1) at Daytona International Speedway, where Smith is the defending race winner. It marks his third year with JRM, which ran 1-2 in the final XFINITY standings last season, with rookie Chase Elliott hoisting the series title. The opening win wound up being the No. 7 team's only victory in 2014, prompting JR Motorsports to shuffle the crew chief order, replacing Ryan Pemberton with Burdett, who boasts a history of working on championship-level Sprint Cup Series teams. Though the NASCAR-mandated ban on testing has limited some of the time it takes for a team to become a more cohesive group, Smith said he has little concern about putting the pairing into action for the 33-race long haul. "Our relationship was good before he came to work there, but it's gotten better since he's come to JR Motorsports," Smith said. "The more I've been around him and seen how he acts with the guys, how he handles the guys, how the guys act with him -- it's gotten me more and more excited about getting down here and just getting everything started." Without testing, Smith has had plenty of off-track developments to keep him busy in the offseason. His wife, Megan, is expecting the couple's first child -- a boy -- any day now. For a man who finds comfort driving cars at rapid rate of speed, Smith described the couple's experience at a birthing class with one word -- "terrifying." "I walked out of there, and I'm not going to lie, I got a beer almost immediately," Smith said. "Outside of that, it was good." The other major life adventure of the offseason involved driving of a different sort, a nearly 1,600-mile road trip to Colorado for Thanksgiving with his team boss, Dale Earnhardt Jr. After forging through the night, rain and fog to help move a truck to Smith's Rocky Mountain home, it left Smith with a better appreciation for their relationship -- not to mention a better impersonation of Earnhardt's trademark North Carolina twang. "I feel like we know quite a bit about each other, just as friends," Smith said. "Yeah, he's a boss, but he's a friend, too. Fortunate to have that situation." MORE: READ: Latest NASCAR news PLAY: Sign up for Fantasy Live WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView today FULL SERIES COVERAGE • Latest news • Standings • Schedule
Ron Hornaday Jr. makes contact with Brennan Newberry but avoids major contact in the Smith's 350 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
James Buescher and Ross Chastain make slight contact on pit road, causing tempers to ignite on pit road during the Smith's 350 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Jennifer Jo Cobb loses a tire and makes hard contact with the wall bringing out a late caution during the Smith's 350 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Timothy Peters takes the checkers and wins the Smith's 350 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Brennan Newberry's tough night continues as he spins for a third time collecting Matt Kruszewski during the Smith's 350 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Anderson's Pure Maple Syrup on board as primary sponsor for two races Play: NASCAR Fantasy Live " Vote: Ultimate Daytona Challenge Regan Smith will have a new primary sponsor on board for two races, JR Motorsports announced on Tuesday. Anderson's Pure Maple Syrup will be the primary sponsor for Smith's No. 7 Chevrolet in two NASCAR XFINITY Series races at Charlotte Motor Speedway (May 23) and New Hampshire Motor Speedway (July 18). "Anderson's Pure Maple Syrup is, like JR Motorsports, a family company," JRM co-owner and general manager Kelley Earnhardt Miller said in a team release. "We share a lot of the same values and that makes for an ideal partnership in the XFINITY Series. We are proud to carry Anderson's colors in 2015 as Regan and the No. 7 team compete for the series title." In addition, Anderson's Pure Maple Syrup wil serve as an associate sponsor for five XFINITY Series races this season. Those races at Auto Club Speedway (March 21), Richmond International Raceway (April 24), Talladega Superspeedway (May 2), Road America (August 29) and Chicagoland Speedway (September 19). Smith finished second last season in the XFINITY Series standings to JR Motorsports teammmate Chase Elliott. Here's a look at Smith's paint scheme with Anderson's Pure Maple Syrup. FULL SERIES COVERAGE • Latest news • Standings • Schedule