Smith Close To Driving Number 1 For D.E.I.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- Regan Smith was finalizing a deal Thursday to drive the No. 01 for Dale Earnhardt Inc. next season.

Smith has verbally agreed to a one-year contract that includes a team option for two more seasons. The deal is expected to be announced next weekend at Richmond International Raceway, where DEI is planning to announce its entire 2008 lineup.

DEI president Max Siegel did not immediately return a phone message Thursday. But he has previously said that Smith was on his short list of candidates for the No. 01, which DEI acquired in last month's merger with Ginn Racing.

``Since the merger, Regan's first choice has always been to stay with DEI,'' said agent Jeff Dickerson of Motorsports Management Inc. ``We are working hard to make that happen.''

Siegel has previously said he's trying to put together a split schedule for Mark Martin and Aric Almirola to share the No. 8 next season. That deal is being held up by sponsorship negotiations.

DEI has been working on its 2008 lineup since early May, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he was leaving his late father's company at the end of the season. The team was unsuccessful in its bid to sign Kyle Busch as Earnhardt's replacement.

The merger with Ginn expanded DEI's stable from three cars to four, and put Martin, Almirola and Smith in DEI's driver rotation. But it also left Smith in limbo without a secure seat.

Smith started the year splitting the No. 01 with Martin, who has been an enthusiastic mentor to the 23-year-old. But a week before Bobby Ginn sold his team to DEI, he shuffled his lineup and gave Smith his own full-time Nextel Cup ride while signing Almirola to split the rest of the season with Martin.

Once the two teams merged, Smith's ride went away and he was left without a car to drive in the Cup Series. He's raced just three times since the merger, in the Cup race at Watkins Glen, and in Truck Series events at Indianapolis and Bristol.

Martin, meanwhile, was working the garage to help Smith land a full-time ride.

Siegel has said he did not want to sign a driver to a long-term deal for the No. 01 because he wanted to leave DEI's options open for next year's free-agent class. Greg Biffle, Ryan Newman and Bobby Labonte are all in negotiating years with their respective teams, and could become available to DEI if Smith does not work out.

In six career Cup starts, Smith's highest finish was 24th at Talladega. He has six top-10 finishes in 102 Busch Series starts, and one top 10 in 14 Truck Series events.


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