Ragan leads big charge from little guys
May 06, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- The underdogs waited until the very end at Talladega Superspeedway. And then they attacked in a pack.
A restrictor-place track known for its unpredictability lived up to that reputation Sunday, hosting a green-white-checkered finish that tossed NASCAR’s class system into the drizzly breeze. There was Regan Smith, driving for little Phoenix Racing, trying to hold on at the front. There was Scott Speed, who hadn’t competed in the past three NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events, charging along the bottom. There was David Stremme, of first-year Swan Racing, closing in from the back.
And there was the Front Row Motorsports tandem of David Ragan and David Gilliland, storming through the middle at the perfect time and stunning NASCAR’s traditional powerhouses with a big victory for the little guys.
It was that kind of day at Talladega, a place that always seems a tad off-kilter, but Sunday had it all -- a three-hour delay for weather, big crashes that knocked out several contenders, a green-white-checkered finish in the approaching darkness and an absolute shocker in the end.
Ragan’s second career victory at NASCAR’s top level was nothing like his first, which came with an established Roush Fenway Racing team in the summertime Daytona event two years ago. After Roush shut down its No. 6 program due to a lack of sponsorship, Ragan joined Front Row Motorsports, a smaller organization with less personnel and financing which had never won a Sprint Cup race -- until Sunday evening, when that No. 34 car burst through the middle of the pack in stunning fashion.
“In the racing graveyard, my epitaph won't be I won the most races or championships, but I want to be know as a team that did the most with the least,” owner Bob Jenkins said. “Every year we try to get better. We work within ourselves. The chassis we run we build, so we're not able to go out and buy products from other teams, and that's a disadvantage, but on a day like today it really makes you feel good. … These guys ‑‑ they make less than what a top‑tier team would make, but they're still at the shop doing the same thing every day, and it paid off for them today. For me, I'd much rather do it this way than to go out and write a check for top‑tier equipment.”
His wasn’t the only small team relishing in a big-time finish. Speed snagged ninth for Leavine Family Racing, which in three part-time campaigns in NASCAR’s top series had never finished better than 17th. A former driver for the Red Bull team, Speed hadn’t even competed in a Sprint Cup event since Martinsville -- he failed to qualify at Texas, and last week was in Brazil winning a gold medal in Global RallyCross at the X Games.
“Top 10 baby!!!!!! Whaaaaaat,” Speed -- as only he could -- wrote on Twitter after the race. A few spots behind him in 12th was Stremme, who posted the best finish for owner Brandon Davis’ first-year organization. And then there was Smith, who won Saturday’s rain-delayed NASCAR Nationwide Series race, and made a bid at an unlikely weekend sweep before winding up sixth in James Finch’s No. 51 car.
“A little disappointed,” Smith admitted. “That last restart we were on the bottom, and our car just didn’t work on the bottom at all for whatever reason. It just kept stalling out. I stayed down there to try and help Jimmie (Johnson) and give him a shove so we could get up there and battle it out. I just couldn’t give him a big enough push to clear guys at the right time. I kept getting stalled out by the cars on the outside. Still a good day, still proud of the effort by the team, and you go to the next one.”
Even so, the sport’s top drivers took notice. “That’s always cool to see the underdogs go out there and grab one,” said Matt Kenseth, who led 142 laps and finished eighth. “So happy for those guys.”
So was third-place Carl Edwards. “You know, I worked for Mike Mittler for a long time and I saw how hard teams have to compete to be competitive at this level,” Edwards said, referring to his first team owner on what is now the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. “I obviously wanted to win that race very, very badly for a number of reasons, but it truly couldn't happen to two better guys.”
Little teams breaking through isn’t unheard of at Talladega, where Brad Keselowski earned a stunning win for Finch’s organization in 2009, and Tommy Baldwin Racing cars have regularly battled for top-10 positions. In fact, TBR driver J.J. Yeley was in contention for a high finish Sunday before getting wrecked in the event’s final accident. A team like Front Row has a track like Talladega circled on the calendar, knowing the big restrictor-plate track presents one of its best opportunities to steal a victory.
“For sure, these and the road courses we feel like are our best shots to come and have a legitimate shot at winning,” Gilliland said. “The rest of our program we're still working on and trying to get there. Obviously some day we want to be an organization that can go and compete for wins on a weekly basis, but we're not there yet, so to be able to come to these type of tracks, we definitely put a lot of preparation into ‑‑ and a lot of emphasis on our speedway program, and today we had two very fast race cars and we were able to come home 1-2.”
The Generation-6 car, which Ragan’s crew chief Jay Guy said helps even the playing field between the traditional contenders and the rest of the field, surely helps. “It’s a great equalizer,” Guy said. “… It’s enabled us to be a little better than we were in years past.” At 26th in points even after Sunday’s victory, Ragan understands there is still more work to do. Front Row claimed as many top-five finishes Sunday as it had in its 403-race history to that point.
“We have higher goals, and we expect to improve, but it doesn't happen overnight, and it doesn't happen in one or two seasons,” Ragan said. “… But it does help a lot in confidence. It goes a long way for our guys that work six days a week that don't get to enjoy the race track perks of traveling every weekend. They have to stay at the shop and work 50, 60 hours a week building these cars. It gives them some confidence and hope, and it's a big thing. Absolutely, it's a big thing.”
And it was a big check -- Front Row drivers Ragan, Gilliland, and 19th-place Josh Wise collectively brought home $707,666 on Sunday.
“Trust me, these guys know how to spend it,” Jenkins said. “But it'll help our program, there's no doubt about that. The thing we've done is, although it's an expensive sport, we just reinvest what we make back into the sport. That's the only way we're going to get better. My philosophy from the beginning is, in this sport, you have to make your own place at the table. Nobody is going to give it to you. I've always felt like if we can go out and perform and put out a good product, then sponsorship will come, respect will come and hopefully wins will come, so that's kind of been our attitude all along.”
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