The Daytona 500 was one big could’ve, would’ve, should’ve for David Ragan.
With a chance at redemption, the 25-year-old hardly needed a reminder on late-race procedures.
In his return to Daytona International Speedway, a little over four months after a late-race gaffe in the season-opening Daytona 500 cost him what would have been a life-changing victory, Ragan stayed calm when he found himself out front on the final restart of Saturday night’s race.
With teammate Matt Kenseth on his bumper, their spotter tried to warn Ragan to stay in his lane on the restart, the error he made that led to his crushing penalty in February.
”I was on Matt Kenseth’s radio that last restart and his spotter mentioned it, and I said ‘You don’t have to tell me, so don’t even say it,’ ” Ragan said. ”That kind of lightened the mood. Everyone was so tense there at the end.”
Kenseth pushed Ragan for the final two laps as Ragan cruised to his first career Sprint Cup win in 163 starts.
”I told him, ‘I’m not going to leave you and try to pass you,’ ” said Kenseth, ”because I knew that one of us weren’t going to win. So that was a plan to work as a team all night and it just so happened he was in front at the end. Both of us were kind of unselfish all night and worked together really well.”
It helped Ragan atone for the Daytona 500, when he was black-flagged for passing too early on the restart and slammed his steering wheel three times with his fist. After finishing 14th, he said ”It’ll take us a long time to forget this one. The sooner we can win one, the sooner we can forget it.”
Now he feels a whole lot better.
”It was a tough one in February and coming back here, we knew that we’d have a shot to win,” he said. ”We got one back at Daytona. It would have been tough to lose another one. I thought about that under the last caution.”
With the win, Ragan could be in contention for a berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Ragan jumped to 17th in the standings, and two spots in the Chase will go to the winningest drivers ranked between 11 and 20.
And it could save the relationship with sponsor UPS, which is in the final year of its contract with RFR. The team learned this week that Crown Royal will not return as primary sponsor for Kenseth, and so far the organization has only one of its four primary sponsors resigned for 2012.
”David has a great future ahead of him and we look forward to many more trips to Victory Lane with him,” Ron Rogowski, UPS vice president of sponsorship and events, said in a statement immediately after the race.
Kenseth finished second to give RFR a 1-2 sweep for Ford.
Joey Logano, who won his first Daytona race Friday night with a Nationwide Series victory, finished third in a Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. Kasey Kahne was fourth in a Toyota for Red Bull Racing and Kyle Busch was fifth for JGR.
Jeff Gordon made a terrific late-race save to avoid a race-ending wreck and finished sixth in a Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports. Kevin Harvick was seventh for Richard Childress Racing and claimed the series points lead after an early accident caused previous leader Carl Edwards to finish 37th.
Paul Menard was eighth, while Juan Pablo Montoya and AJ Allmendinger rounded out the top 10.
The race was, as expected, more of the two-car tandem style that has taken over at Daytona and Talladega, the two restrictor-plate tracks in NASCAR. It was fairly tame until the final 20 or so laps, when the racing got dicey.
It got downright chaotic with just over two scheduled laps remaining, when Gordon needed a beautiful save to prevent a massive accident. That set up the first attempt at overtime, which ended with a 15-car accident triggered when Mark Martin and Logano went for the same piece of track space.
Then came the second overtime, which ended with Ragan crossing the finish line first as a second 15-car accident broke out in the final turn.