David Ragan finally shrugged off the ”best NASCAR driver without a Cup victory” tag when he took the checkered flag last weekend in Daytona.
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The win was five seasons and 163 Cup starts in the making, and one that many expected to come sooner when Ragan earned a full-time ride driving the No. 6 car for Roush Fenway Racing in 2007 at the tender age of 21.
Ragan was dubbed one of the sport’s ”young guns” at the time of his promotion. The gun rarely fired with precision during Ragan’s first four years as he largely toiled in the middle of the pack while teammates Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle competed for Cup titles.
Yet there was no raucous celebration in Victory Lane after Kenseth pushed Ragan across the finish line in the muggy Florida heat. No overwhelming sense of relief. All that can wait for the winter. If anything, Ragan’s long-awaited breakthrough has only turned the pressure up a notch or three.
”We have to make that win count for something,” he said.
Namely, a spot in NASCAR’s Chase for the championship this fall.
The 25-year-old knows it’s time, perhaps past time, for him to do more than play out the string this fall. His victory vaulted him into one of the two wild-card spots available for the 12-driver Chase with nine races to go before the cutoff.
Suddenly, Ragan’s summer got a whole lot more interesting. So has NASCAR’s thanks to a mix of new faces and a new place the series hopes will add a little buzz to the dog days. Ragan is the third first-time Cup winner this year, three more than in 2010 and the season is only 17 races old.
”I think it’s because everyone’s so equal, competition is so tight,” said Kyle Busch, who will start from the pole Saturday night in the inaugural Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway. ”Everybody has a really good sense of this car right now.”
Including Ragan, who will try to make it two straight Saturday night in an event – much like Ragan’s triumph – that has been a long time coming.
The 1.5-mile oval opened to rave reviews over a decade ago and has hosted Truck and Nationwide series races for years, but it took a protracted legal battle and the track’s sale to Speedway Motorsports Inc., before it found a date on the Cup schedule.
A capacity crowd of over 107,000 is expected, with SMI chairman Bruton Smith is promising to put on the biggest sporting event the Bluegrass State has ever seen, the Kentucky Derby included.
”We will outdraw (everything) this week, this horsey race … included,” Smith said.
Maybe, maybe not, though the drivers sound like they’d rather race on the dirt at Churchill Downs than deal with the tricky – not to mention bumpy – corners at the track tucked in the northern Kentucky hills.
Points leader Kevin Harvick, who won the first Nationwide Series race here in 2001, says Kentucky differs from the other 1.5-mile tracks because of the difficulty that awaits in Turns 3 and 4, believing the bumps add ”character.”
That’s a polite way of calling them problematic.
Five-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson likens getting around at Kentucky to driving over a steel bridge in a passenger car. Find yourself in the wrong groove and things can get pretty uncomfortable.
”The car is constantly moving around,” Johnson said. ”You’re wondering, `Am I loose or tight or is that just the grooves in the track.”
Busch, who won the Truck race here Thursday, thinks the recent surge in repaving projects at places such as Daytona and Kansas should make its way to Kentucky.
”It needs a good look at,” he said.
Kenseth takes it a step further, urging SMI to get the rollers before the series visits again next year.
”I think it bothers everybody,” Kenseth said. ”It is almost ridiculously rough. Even on the front straightaway it’s so rough that it kind of knocks you all over the place. It could use a coat of repavement.”
The bumps haven’t been a problem for Joey Logano, who is 3-for-3 in Nationwide races at the track. Yet Logano is aware that his success won’t mean much when the green flag drops Saturday night.
”(Other teams) are going to know what they need and they’re going to know how to make speed pretty quick out there,” Logano said.
The Cup cars are bulkier and harder to handle than the Nationwide version, and two lengthy testing sessions on Thursday in addition to practice on Friday leveled the playing field.
Still, Johnson is optimistic the cars will find a way to run multiple grooves and provide a compelling race. Then again, it’s not like the track has been kind to the sport’s most dominant figure. He finished 30th in the Nationwide race here in 2001 and testing sessions here over the years have been a rough go.
”This track has beat me up quite a few times,” Johnson said. ”I’ve torn up a lot of race cars here.”
There could be more carnage this weekend, which may open the door for another fresh face to sneak through. It’s not a bad thing for a series trying to find someone – anyone really – to break Johnson’s stranglehold on the championship.
Ragan knows he’s hardly there yet. Then again, he’s much closer than he was a week ago. His win at Daytona comes a few months before shipping giant UPS’ contract as the primary sponsor on his car is up.
The company sent out a statement earlier in the week praising Ragan for his hard work, and he’s optimistic that the company will deliver for him next year. He expects a decision to be made over the next six weeks. Continuing his recent surge would help his cause.
”Certainly winning helps and running well helps and getting TV time and sitting on poles all helps,” Ragan said. "That is what I can control … hopefully I can uphold my end of the deal and keep that Ford up front.”