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Smith having singular season; Denver-based driver back home at the Glen

Regan Smith grew up in Cato, which is a little more than 25 miles northwest of Syracuse. When he was 12, he moved with his family -- partially to help him pursue a career in auto racing -- to Charlotte, N.C.

The move worked out. The 27-year-old is enjoying the best season of his five-year NASCAR Sprint Cup career, giving a boost of confidence to not only the driver but to his single-car team headquartered in Colorado.

Feel free to slam on the brakes.

Colorado?

Yes, Colorado. Smith and his No. 78 Furniture Row team operates out of Denver. The team is believed to be the only Sprint Cup operation ever to be based west of the Mississippi River. It's there because Denver is the hometown of Barney Visser, the owner of the Furniture Row chain of stores.

"That's his hometown -- his other businesses are out there, and he's very interested in the team, and the technical side, so he likes coming to the shop to learn stuff each week," Smith said of Visser. "It's been a lot of work, a lot of learning and trial and error, but we've done a great job."

That especially goes for Smith.

This is Smith's third year with Furniture Row, and until this season he did not have a top-10 finish. Now he has four, including his breakthrough first win in the Southern 500 at Darlington, S.C. He is 26th in points, which would be a career best.

"The win was extremely important -- I had a little doubt in my head if I'd ever get an opportunity to win, especially after Talladega a few years ago," said Smith, refering to the 2008 race in which he passed Tony Stewart on the final lap but NASCAR ruled that he had passed below the yellow out-of-bounds line.

"To win was a weight off my shoulders, and as a team and a company it was a big boost and it showed us where we stood in the garage: we can run with the big teams week-in and week-out and that we're doing the right things every weekend. It's been a great year to realize as a team what our potential is and to realize as a driver what my potential is."

Smith's four top 10s came at what many consider the Sprint Cup's four majors -- the Daytona 500 (seventh), the Southern 500 (first), the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte (eighth) and the Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis (third).

Smith said the fifth "big one" for him is Watkins Glen International. This week, the only full-time Sprint Cup driver from New York will visit his home state during the series' annual stop for the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at The Glen.

Smith, who began racing microds at the Syracuse Fairgrounds as a 4-year-old, still has lots of family in Cato as well as Auburn.

"I grew up going to Watkins Glen as a kid as it was the only racetrack on a grand scale close by," he said. "It's a great chance to see everyone. A lot of folks are coming to the race. It's not only friends and family, you can tell that the race fans are extra loud in introductions. Hopefully you want to put on a show."

Smith is eager to improve on his previous finishes at the Glen -- 34th and 37th. Some years at the Glen he has been replaced by a road racer.

"Road course racing in general is a challenge -- it's not my strongest suit, but I've worked hard to get better," Smith said. "We led laps at Sears Point [he finished 16th at Sonoma] and we're hoping to be better at the Glen. For us to lead laps at Sears Point, that has me pumped up to race at the Glen."

Smith isn't the only driver who has been around for a few seasons who has made an impact this year. Similarly experienced Paul Menard and David Ragan (he and Smith, whose first name is pronounced REE-gan, are confused often by fans and media) also broke through for their first victories this year but are also outside the top 12.

"I definitely think there is a learning curve," said Smith. "You can get to the point where you're beating your head against the wall wondering what to do different, until you understand. It takes time. There's a lot of stuff that goes into running good at this level, a lot of little stuff that doesn't get on the highlights. There are always 35-40 guys capable of winning a race [43 cars start each race], and you've seen that in all the different winners and first-time winners. The level of competition is as high as its ever been."

And Smith and his team have shown that being located out west hasn't been a hindrance. While the travel is often more extensive than for those teams based out of Charlotte, Furniture Row's trips out West are also easier.

"It's different, but a good different," said Smith, who said the team employs a "buddy system" of two truck drivers to handle the long trips for the team's transporter. "There are times where things are trickier."

But the location has its advantages for building a team as well.

"From an employee standpoint, if someone comes to work to our team, they're making a commitment," said Smith. "It's not like, 'OK, I don't like this, so I'm going to shove my tool box down the road.' They're really committed to this program and it makes for a different attitude, more of a feeling of guys working together and being part of a team."

Smith has a very outside shot at making the 10-race postseason. This year's new wild-card rule stipulates that the drivers who have the most wins while still in the top 20 will earn the two spots. Another win would give Smith two -- which would put him even with wild-card leader Brad Keselowski -- but he has a significant points mountain to climb to reach the top 20 with just five races remaining before the postseason.

"We're going to focus on winning races," said Smith, who is signed through next year with Furniture Row. "We want to be building momentum going into next year, and wins are the only thing that pay off right now."

e-mail: kmcshea@buffnews.com