Ragan, Gilliland aim to repeat May miracle
October 16, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
The trophy still sits in the team's showroom, and he enjoys looking at the photos and mementos from that day, but in retrospect David Ragan wonders if he really got the chance to enjoy it. This is NASCAR, after all, where each week begins another journey toward another race track, and -- particularly for one of the smaller teams on the circuit -- there isn't a whole lot of time allotted for savoring the moment.
"When you win a race on Sunday, you're back to business Monday morning," he said. "In this sport, you kind of move on. But I know this offseason we'll certainly enjoy it, and years down the road we'll all remember that win."
Particularly this weekend, when NASCAR's premier series returns to Talladega Superspeedway for the first time since Ragan pulled the season's biggest stunner back in May. With Front Row Motorsports teammate David Gilliland right behind him, the Georgia native burst up the middle on the final lap and led the way to an unlikely 1-2 finish for an organization that celebrated in Victory Lane for the first time in its history.
This time around, the Front Row teammates are out to prove their May miracle wasn't some fluke of restrictor-plate racing. Ragan and Gilliland are bringing back the same cars they used the last time around at Talladega, and are out to cap a week that included both drivers re-signing with the organization for next season.
"I think we'll have a little swagger amongst everyone," Ragan said. "At least we know where Victory Lane is in case it happens again. But it's so hard to win these Cup races, and there's the chance that we’ll go there and wreck on the first lap and finish 43rd. You know that going in. But there's also a chance that we could go and win again. So we know that. Our pit crew will be confident, I'll be confident as a driver, and hopefully some of the drivers will give us a little bit of respect out there and run with us some."
Ragan is no slouch as a plate racer -- his other victory in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series came in the summertime Daytona event for his former team, Roush Fenway Racing. He might also have a Daytona 500 triumph on his resume had he not been flagged for jumping a green-white-checkered restart in 2011, when Trevor Bayne went on to win the Great American Race. And then there's Gilliland, who has four top-5 finishes in his career at NASCAR's top level, three of them coming at plate tracks.
"We obviously had a dream weekend there earlier this year, and have a lot of confidence as an organization going back," Gilliland said. "We know we have a legitimate shot as an organization, as a team and me personally as a driver to be able to get my first win in the Cup Series. So that's what we'll be focused on so we can achieve that."
If there's any place most conducive to such an unlikely season sweep, it's Talladega, where restrictor-plate packages combine with the draft to minimize the differences between the sport's power teams and everyone else. The 2.66-mile track has often rewarded the little guys, boasting an array of surprise winners that spans the likes of Richard Brickhouse, Ron Bouchard, James Hylton, Lennie Pond, and in more recent times Brad Keselowski back in his days with an underfunded Phoenix Racing operation.
"We know we can," Ragan said. "There's no question about that. But Talladega is such a tough race. To be in contention is our goal. I think if we're in contention -- and that's in the top 10 those last 10, 15 laps -- I feel like we're going to have as good a shot as anyone to win. But it's getting there.
"There are a lot of factors that go into just making it the 500-mile distance. But I think our cars have had speed. Our Ford engines are great, they run well. And I think myself and my spotter and my crew chief, I think we've all got a good feeling for the right moves to make at the end of the race. But our first race is just to get to the end. That’s all we think about. I try not to think about winning or running fifth or second or how things shake out on the white-flag lap. I just try to get to mile marker 475, and then it's kind of a different race from there."
That was certainly the case in May, when Matt Kenseth led 142 laps, but found himself in the wrong lane as the field charged toward the checkered flag. Ragan and Gilliland hooked up on the backstretch and came roaring up through the center lane, while the current Sprint Cup points leader was up high against the wall. By the time Kenseth thought about moving down to block, it was too late, and owner Bob Jenkins' cars had delivered an Alabama slammer that resulted in the biggest day in team history.
Factoring in the 19th-place finish of third driver Josh Wise, Front Row's total take that day was $707,666. There were more longer-lasting benefits as well, Ragan added.
"It definitely helped us on the sponsorship front," he said. "Some of our sponsors that have taken a big gamble in investing in Front Row Motorsports, they were reassured that we do have a lot of potential, that we can succeed at the top level of NASCAR if we all go out and execute and do our jobs. I think that was very good. I think it attracted some other people into kind of looking at us. Ultimately at the end of the day it's all about revenue, so we can build better race cars and have more resources to work with."
Toward that end, the process is ongoing -- Talladega remains the only top-10 finish for either Ragan or Gilliland this season, and Front Row's two cars more often run in the 20s on more traditional layouts. But the draft is the great equalizer, something that's been on display time and again at NASCAR's biggest race track, including this past May. For the Front Row drivers, the plan is to get near the finish, go for the win, and possibly record another memory to savor once the season comes to a close.
"That's what it's all about," Gilliland said, "just lurking around the doorway for when it finally opens, and then barging through."