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Positive results helping Ragan move past Daytona

May 02, 2011, Joe Menzer,

With finishes of eighth or better in three of past four, driver's confidence growing

It always will remain part of Daytona 500 lore from the magical day when the ultimate underdog won. But David Ragan is doing his best to forget about it.

And lately, Ragan's best has been pretty doggone good. He finished fourth in last Saturday's Crown Royal presents the Matthew and Daniel Hansen 400 at Richmond International Raceway -- the third time in four Sprint Cup races he has finished in the top eight.

"A lot of people like to look into things and see what they want to see -- but we're very happy now and just can't wait to get to next week and the week after and the week after that to hopefully keep building on the successes that we've had early this year."


"It was a fun night," Ragan said.

It wasn't much fun the night he lost the 2011 Daytona 500, when Ragan's possible Cinderella story suddenly became someone else's. He was the race leader on the first of what would become two attempts at a green-white-checkered finish, and the plan was for him to jump down in front of upstart Trevor Bayne and have Bayne, his friend, push him to victory in the two-car draft.

Choosing to start from the outside, Ragan moved to the inside in front of Bayne before the two reached the start-finish line. It was an illegal move and a costly error that drew an immediate black flag from NASCAR. The penalty sent Ragan to the tail end of the lead lap and relegated him to a 14th-place finish in the race eventually won in stunning fashion by Bayne.

It helped turn the 20-year-old Bayne into an overnight media sensation and fueled rumors that Bayne, basically on loan to Wood Brothers Racing from Roush Fenway Racing for a limited number of Sprint Cup starts, might eventually, inevitably supplant Ragan in the No. 6 Ford that Ragan has driven full time for Roush Fenway in the Sprint Cup series since 2007 -- without a single victory.

Ragan admitted he heard some of the whispers. But he chose to ignore them, tried to forget what happened at Daytona, and moved on.

"Certainly anything can happen with our 6 car," Ragan said. "But in the grand scheme of things, we've got to focus on what we need to do. That's what the big picture is right now.

"We're a good team. I feel like we control our own destiny. If we go out and do what we need to do, I think our sponsors will be happy and everything will be fine. We can't stop now. We've got to keep progressing. A lot of people like to look into things and see what they want to see -- but we're very happy now and just can't wait to get to next week and the week after and the week after that to hopefully keep building on the successes that we've had early this year."

Setting the bar

Ragan's Cup career seemed poised to take off when he finished 13th in points in 2008, with six top-five and 14 top-10 finishes. Team owner Jack Roush said during a preseason media tour in January of 2009 that it would be "totally my fault" and inexcusable if Ragan didn't reach Victory Lane multiple times during that coming season. Asked about it later, Ragan admitted he felt the same way -- although he said he would be willing to take his share of the blame if it didn't happen.

It didn't. Not in 2009 and not in 2010. Ragan failed to register a top-five finish in either season and had the grand total of five top-10 finishes in the two seasons combined while he finished a disappointing 27th in points in '09 and 24th in '10.

True to his word, Ragan shoulders some of the blame for it. But he also said the Roush Fenway cars are better now, which obviously helps. Ragan's fourth-place effort last Saturday at RIR was his first top-five and best finish since grabbing third at Talladega in October of 2008. In finishing within the top eight for the third time in four races, it also meant he already has matched last year's entire total of three top-10 finishes just a fourth of the way into this season's schedule.

"It's hard to win races in this sport," Ragan said. "The last two years, we haven't had the cars to go out and do it -- and I was trying to drive the cars harder than they needed to be driven. Now we've got fast cars. That makes life a lot easier, and we're happy to be in the spot we're in.

"Like I've told everyone from Day One: I've never felt like I've made it. A lot of people have said to me, 'Congratulations, man, you've made it.' I don't think you've made it until you've won multiple championships. You can be a race winner and top five in the points -- someone like Dale [Earnhardt] Jr., who is a former [two-time Nationwide Series] champion and multiple race winner -- and everyone still likes to give him a hard time. So I tell everyone I'm still trying to lay the groundwork for my career. We're happy with where we're at right now and we're just trying to continue to build on it.'

What's next?

Ragan has yet to post that first Sprint Cup victory, of course. And he's had some poor luck this season that led to horrible finishes at Talladega (39th) and Phoenix (36th). But he's up to 19th in the point standings and seems to be building positive momentum.

"We still want to be more consistent. But we've qualified well, gotten a couple of top-10s [in addition to last Saturday]," Ragan said. "We still haven't shown the consistency needed to be a top-10 team -- but if it wasn't for our two DNFs this season, which came because of a wreck at Talladega and a cut tire in Phoenix, we would be in the top 15 in points. So we're right there. We just need to put those bad finishes behind us and be more consistent."

Bayne, meanwhile, missed the race at Richmond as he underwent medical tests to determine why he was suffering from complications brought on by an earlier insect bite. Since Daytona, he has endured five Cup finishes of 30th or worse and his best finish was 17th at Texas.

In other words, Bayne is going through many of the same growing pains Ragan did earlier in his Cup career. And talk has cooled of Ragan possibly being replaced by Bayne at the end of this season, even as negotiations continue between Roush Fenway and UPS, Ragan's current primary sponsor, for 2012 and beyond.

"Daytona, at the end of the day, it was still a top-15 finish," Ragan said. "But it certainly wasn't anything we were happy about at the time being, because we thought we had a shot to win. It was just one of those things where we learned a hard lesson at a bad time.

"We were part of it. We were in position to do it, and it just didn't work out. There will be another day for it -- but the Daytona 500 only comes around once a year, so it's tough to leave that one on the table."

At least Ragan did not leave his season behind at Daytona.

It has been impressive that he appears to have blocked out the disappointment and is focused squarely on what's ahead. He's only 25 years old and as long as he can continue building on his solid finishes while minimizing the poor ones, his future remains bright.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.