By JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer
CONCORD, N.C. -- When Regan Smith passed Tony Stewart on the last lap at Talladega Superspeedway, he was certain he'd just earned his first Sprint Cup Series victory.
When NASCAR ruled the pass illegal, Smith figured he was for sure a career-best second. Still unhappy with his runner-up finish, he went to argue his case in the NASCAR office following Sunday's finish.
So imagine his surprise, while waiting for top NASCAR officials, Smith saw himself dropped to an 18th-place finish.
"I thought I was going to plead my case about if I was first or second," Smith said Thursday at Lowe's Motor Speedway. "I was sitting in the (NASCAR) hauler, literally sitting there, and it flashed up on the screen and it went from second down to 18th.
"And I said 'Whoa, whoa, whoa, what just happened there?' I was like 'Man, that's even worse yet."'
And so went the saga of the rookie who appeared to use a gutsy move to beat a two-time series champion in a thrilling Talladega finish. Instead, Smith's pass of Stewart under the yellow out-of-bounds line at the bottom of the track was disqualified and his penalty was being dropped to the tail end of the lead lap.
He was adamant that he believed the rule was "anything goes" on the last lap of a restrictor-plate race, and passing below the line was allowed so long as the driver could see the flagstand. Several other drivers, including two-time champion Jimmie Johnson, said they also interpreted the rule that way.
And there was precedence. Dale Earnhardt Jr. won at Talladega in 2003 by passing Matt Kenseth below the yellow line, and Johnny Benson earned second-place in a Truck Series race at Daytona last year by passing below the line.
A day after the finish, NASCAR clarified that passing under the line would never be tolerated on any lap.
Smith said if knew Sunday that the pass was prohibited, he would have stayed in line -- a tactic he's certain would have caused a huge accident.
"If we were to go back two weeks from now, same situation, same circumstances at the end of the race, knowing what I know now, there would have been a big crash at the end of the race because I wouldn't have budged," Smith said. "I would have stuck my nose there and left it there."
Smith was behind Stewart on the final lap, with Stewart blocking every one of Smith's moves. As Stewart moved high one time, Smith pulled along side him and Stewart quickly came back down to prevent the pass. To avoid the two cars running into each other, Smith said he ducked below the line and completed the pass he was already in the process of making.
He returned to the racing surface in the lead and beat Stewart to the finish line, his crew exploding in celebration on pit road. A stunned Stewart waited for the call, which finally ordered him to Victory Lane for his first win at the Alabama track and first win of the season.
"I feel bad for him because it was the race of his life. I sympathize from his standpoint, and it's frustrating when you know that at the very least you should have finished second," Stewart said. "But to get the one-lap penalty like that and be at the tail end of the lead lap, it's hard to swallow when you leave."
Stewart was the first driver ever penalized for driving below the yellow line, which he did late in the first race -- Daytona in 2001 -- that the rule was in effect.
A victory could have done wonders for both Smith and Dale Earnhardt Inc., his slumping race team. Although Smith leads the rookie of the year standings, his car has lacked a full-time sponsor all season and DEI is looking for funding for three of its four cars next year.
He returned to a sympathetic garage area Thursday and received many condolences and a general feeling that he'd been robbed.
"If I had a dollar for every one of them, we wouldn't have to get a sponsor for this race car for next year," Smith joked. "My Web site crashed three times because so many fans got on there. That's been the cool part of this. I got a lot of support."
Smith and Stewart talked at a Wednesday night charity event, where Smith donated $1,000 to keep Stewart in "jail" during the event.
"It was fun to have Regan there," Stewart said. "I told him I know it's not going to be any consolation, but I said I know exactly what you were going through when you went into the trailer to talk about it because I was the first one to go in and have that conversation. It made him feel a little bit better about it that I at least understood."