News & Media

Race winners still chasing elusive Chase dreams

September 11, 2011, Joe Menzer,

RICHMOND, Va. -- Menard, Ambrose, Ragan know a second victory key to their postseason hopes

They have experienced the highest of racing highs this season, and some of the lowest of racing lows.

But for Paul Menard, Marcos Ambrose and David Ragan, it's pretty simple heading into this Saturday night's Sprint Cup race at Richmond International Raceway if they are to claim one of the two Chase wild-card berths. They need to win -- again.

"We were in a great position just a month ago to be one of the wild-card spots. We felt like it was our own race to lose, and that's what we've done."


Even then, except for Menard, there is no guarantee it will be enough.

Menard enters Saturday's race 20th in the point standings. Ambrose is 21st, only seven behind Menard. Ragan is 23rd, 13 behind Ambrose and 20 behind Menard.

The two wild-card Chase berths, new to NASCAR this season, go to the two drivers between 11th and 20th in points who own the most victories over the first 26 races of the season. Menard, Ambrose and Ragan each have one victory, but the euphoria of reaching Victory Lane -- the first in each of their careers -- has since faded.

"We won at Indy and followed that up with a top-10 at Pocono," Menard said. "But since then, it's been a struggle. Hopefully we can change that this weekend."

Two weeks after Menard won at Indianapolis on July 31, Ambrose won for the first time in his Sprint Cup career at Watkins Glen. Ragan claimed his first Cup victory at Daytona on July 2.

Ambrose said drivers never forget that first victory, no matter when or where it comes. But he admitted that the next race comes so quickly that it's pretty sobering.

"Look, you get a moment in time like that, when you've worked so hard to get into Victory Lane, you want to hold onto it a little. It was a moment of complete satisfaction and relief for me," Ambrose said. "I was proud to represent [team sponsors] Stanley and DeWalt and everybody. But it was more about, 'I did it and now it's done.' I felt relief more than anything else at the end. I think the second win is going to be more joy. But the first one was more like, get it out of the way so everybody quits talking about it.

"It was a great feeling, but it didn't last long. Seven days, and you're into the next race."

Or in the case of this week -- because of rain delays that caused the Atlanta race to be postponed until Tuesday and a Saturday start in Richmond -- four days.

Ragan agreed with Ambrose about the relief factor of getting the first win, but also admitted to the angst he has experienced since then as he's seen a Chase berth slip further from the reach of his team.

"Relief is the feeling that you feel 100 percent. You try so hard. The Nationwide Series wins are good; the wins at other levels are good. But to win at the Sprint Cup level, it's relief and it's satisfaction that you've been able to accomplish the goal," Ragan said. "I think in the months afterward, you're more happy about it and you enjoy it. But at that time in Victory Lane, it's all about we finally did it, we proved to everyone we can win at this level. It was enjoyable to celebrate that with a crew chief and a team that really wanted it as much as I did."

Then, of course, the rest of the season comes fast. Ragan climbed to as high as 13th in the points in mid-July, but has dropped 10 spots over the past six races.

"There is a lot of frustration. We were in a great position just a month ago to be one of the wild-card spots. We felt like it was our own race to lose, and that's what we've done," Ragan said. "It's been a combination of hard luck and just not performing as well as we needed to in the month of August -- being wrecked at Watkins Glen, blowing up at Atlanta last week. We had a great car at Indy and fuel mileage got us.

"So it's disappointing to be so close. But it still feels good to be able to look back on that win and know we did it."

Ragan also said a season is not always all about making the Chase. It just seems that way sometimes, to drivers as well as outsiders. Ragan also rightly pointed out that Chase or no Chase, there is still a good bit of the 2011 season left for everyone -- and that his earlier win still figures to factor in.

"I think having that win and the position we're in now gives us the confidence that we can drive back up there to the top 14 or so in points," Ragan said. "Without that win, it might be tough to battle back. But we can see there is still a lot of fight left in this UPS team. We've got a lot of great tracks coming up. If we can get back on a roll and get back up to 14th or 15th in points with that one win, it will have been a respectable year."

Menard, meanwhile, knows what has to happen for him to pull a Chase berth out from the fire. Even if Menard doesn't win, he could get in if Brad Keselowski climbs into the top 10 in the point standings and he's able to stay ahead of Ambrose and Ragan in the points.

"We know who we have to beat. We know we have to stay ahead of David, Marcos -- the guys with the wins," said Menard, who has never registered a top-10 finish at RIR in nine career starts. "We know if Brad gets in the top 10, which we'll be cheering hard for him to do, we get in if we don't lose anything. And we know if we win the race, we're in. So we know what we have to do. We just have to go out and do it."