DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – Daniel Smith approached the pit wall without much fanfare. People around Kevin Harvick's booth focused on cars heading for the pit lane at Sunday's Clash in Daytona rather than the 34-year-old father of three.
The spectators missed Smith's crouching gesture as he approached Harvick's car, then took off from the wall once the car stopped. Smith changed the right rear wheel, sprinted from behind to the left and changed that wheel.
It was done in a few seconds.
Just hours earlier, the thought of doing something so common in a NASCAR race almost made Smith cry.
The call took place the week of the Bristol Night Race last August, just two months after the birth of Smith's third child.
Smith had cancer.
"My wife and I sat on the living room floor and cried our eyes," he said.
Smith's doctor could not tell how far Smith had cancer and whether it had spread. More tests were needed. The spirit of Smith ran.
"I just wanted to be alive to raise my kids," said Smith, whose eldest child is 4 years old.
Smith spent the day in the Bristol race undergoing exams, blood tests and other tests to determine if his testicular cancer had spread.
The cancer had infected two lymph nodes in the lower abdomen and the doctors had also noticed a worrisome spot in Smith's lung. Cancer has not been found anywhere else.
About 24 hours later, Smith was standing on the Bristol Motor Speedway piton wall to make the Harvick car stand that night. Smith knew that this could be the last time he'd ride the car for a while, maybe ever.
The previous weekend, Smith was in Victory Lane after Harvick's win in Michigan. Now, Smith is prepared for an uncertain future.
Two days after the race in Bristol, Smith underwent surgery to allow doctors to remove the tumor from one of his testicles. After a few weeks of healing, chemotherapy treatments began.
Each treatment cycle consisted of one week of hospitalization and two weeks of recovery. Doctors ordered four cycles – 12 weeks – of treatment.
"You can not leave the unit," Smith said while he was in the hospital. "You are connected to a chemotherapy cord or to your intravenous infusion all day long
"After this first round, you do not feel so bad. At each turn, they knock you down a bit more. You do not have time to go where you were, so every turn has become a little harder. "
All the liquids made him gain weight. The chemo reduced his strength and soon his hair fell.
Smith could soon stop doing 10 pushups before quitting.
It was hard for the athlete Smith, who joined what was then Haas-CNC Racing in 2004 and joined the pit team. He stayed on the team when she was renamed Stewart-Haas Racing and was part of the pit crew of Tony Stewart's champion team in 2011. Smith and his teammates joined Kevin's team. Harvick shortly before the 2014 Chase and helped Harvick win the title that year.
Smith focused on his return to the well team in 2019. He trained as best he could when he was in the hospital and at home.
"It was a lot of days that I just did not want to do anything, but I knew I had to do it and I pushed myself," he said.
As Smith recovered, the NASCAR season continued. Harvick has qualified for the Championship 4 in Miami. Smith went to this race in hopes of celebrating another title, but Joey Logano won the race and the championship.
Smith's recovery continued during the off-season as he rebuilt his forces.
After arriving at Daytona on Sunday, all he had done to date hit him.
"Just the trip," Smith said, his voice shaking. "I am now moved to think about it. Everything my family and I went through to get there and all the people who helped us. I will think of all those people who were so kind to us and who helped us out with my guys. My guys are like my brothers.
"It will be me who will hold back the tears, but it will be good tears."
Although Smith has returned to racing for Harvick's car, he will miss some races later this spring. Doctors want to remove the two lymph nodes infected with cancer. It is planned to remove them in March or April. The operation will increase its chances of complete healing.
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