Rookie-of-the-Year hopeful Regan Smith laid the groundwork for his first full NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season by testing his new Dale Earnhardt, Inc. (DEI), machine at Kentucky Speedway today.

The six-year NASCAR Nationwide Series veteran will compete in the No. 01 Chevrolet in 2008 and is part of a new five-driver DEI Sprint Cup line-up that also will include Paul Menard in the No. 15 and Martin Truex, Jr., in the No. 1. Newcomer Aric Almirola and veteran Mark Mark Martin will split time in the team's No. 8 entry.

Smith shared the No. 01 seat with Martin last season under the Ginn Racing banner before the team merged with DEI later in the year. Smith competed in seven NASCAR Sprint Cup races and earned a season-best 24th-place finish at Talladega April 29. He started a season-best 10th at Watkins Glen International Aug. 12. He also raced in 17 NASCAR Nationwide Series events and registered a total of three top-five and five top-10 finishes. He took his only series pole award at Kentucky Speedway June 16 before finishing 19th in the "Meijer 300 Presented by Oreo."

His brief but solid 2007 experience will help him approach his 2008 endurance test with confidence.

"I think I picked up a lot (last season). I got a lot of races in and completed most of the laps in those races. I tried not tear up equipment, that was one of the first goals, and I accomplished that for the most part with the exception of Watkins Glen.

"All of my races were Car of Tomorrow (COT) races except for Talladega and that's a totally different beast anyway. There's a lot I'll be able to transfer to the upcoming season and a lot of new stuff I've learned since I've been with the DEI guys. We're all going to be learning as we go with the car and with me being a rookie driver, but everything is going really well so far."

Smith also will benefit from a deeper involvement with the veteran Martin and the opportunity to consult with his up-and-coming teammates Truex, Jr., and Menard throughout the season.

"I have a really good relationship with Mark. I respect him a lot and what he's done throughout his career a ton. Not only am I going to still be able to work with him, I'll actually be able to work with him at the racetrack. When I was racing last year, he wasn't there. This year, he'll be there for 26 races, so I'll be able to see him after practices. There will be a lot of unknowns for all of us and I'll be able to go talk to him.

"Likewise, Martin, who has been on fire lately, and Paul now have a couple years of Sprint Cup experience under their belts and I'll be able to go get information from them," Smith said.

He additionally likes that the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will utilize a single car design for the entire season.

"There's not going to be the unknown, 'I wonder how the other car would've been like at this place.' It's our racecar, that's what we have to work with and I think it's better they went ahead and made a full season with the (one) car (design). By this time next year, I don't think anyone will be talking about the other car. We're going to work with what we have and make it good," Smith said.

With several factors working in his favor, Smith set the goal of winning top series rookie honors next season.

"I think Rookie of the Year is a must for me, I want that title. I look at it and it's all open-wheel guys. I want to carry the stock car banner and keep that going strong.

"If we can go out and get top fives and top 10s by the end of the year, consistently try to run up front, get good experience and finish races - those will be the biggest things.

"If we happen to get a win a some point, that would be great. Obviously, you want to win a race when you start the season. Anybody who doesn't want to do that, doesn't need to be out there. In reality, I'm going to have a lot that I'm learning at the same time I'm racing, so we want to get progressively better each weekend. If we do that, it will be a successful year," he said.

He shaved away a portion of his learning curve today by making progress on his set-up. "It (the COT) really isn't a ton different here. It's tighter across the center of the corner, just like anywhere, and you can't be as aggressive. It's just the typical stuff everywhere we've gone that you have to look out for," Smith said. "We're starting to figure out what these cars want for set-ups and they're unloading closer to what they need to be. It's different, but it's not drastic."

Smith also was joined on the track by his teammate Menard and USAC star Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., who turned laps in a Roush Fenway ARCA RE/MAX Series car with guidance from 2003 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion Travis Kvapil.

Story by Mike Schmaltz

~ Kentucky Speedway ~