You couldn’t help but feel bad for David Ragan. Winless in 146 previous starts, the Roush Fenway Racing driver was laps away from winning his first race –the Daytona 500 of all events – and he blew it. Violating restart rules by changing lanes before crossing the start/finish line, it was a gaffe that was no one’s fault but his own (more on this later).
It would have been a feel good story, as Ragan is considered one of the good guys in the Sprint Cup garage. But instead of winning the biggest race of the year, Ragan may now win a different race, and it’s not a good one – the first to NASCAR’s unemployment line. These upcoming months will be crucial for the 25-year-old from Unadilla, Georgia. Top 10 finishes won’t cut it either; Ragan will need to compete for wins just as he did this past Sunday.
Rumors have long been circulating that Ragan was on the hot seat prior to the Daytona 500. With just eight top 5s and 22 top 10s in four seasons driving for a powerhouse team, many were surprised that he still had a ride coming into 2011. There are likely two reasons for this: there hasn’t been a deep free agent pool in recent seasons, and Roush hasn’t had a strong farm system in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series.
That all changed last September when Roush signed a young driver you might have heard of lately – Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne. Between the potential Bayne had already shown last year, and now pulling off one the greatest upsets in NASCAR history, it appears Roush has a future star for the Sprint Cup series. Remember, even though Bayne is driving for the Wood Brothers in Cup this year, it is Roush who has the right of first refusal to any potential ride that may be offered for NASCAR’s newest star.
Where will that leave Ragan? Signs point to out of a ride. While he is still signed with RFR thru 2014, UPS is in their last year of a three year deal with the organization. The last several years have shown how difficult it is to attract sponsorship, and Roush will need to put the most appealing driver in the car. Who do you think UPS would rather have racing for them next year; 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne who has become an overnight hero, or the winless Ragan?
For now, there is still time. Prior to that penalty, Ragan had been driving the race of his life. Ironically, it was Bayne he worked with so well in the two-car draft with Ragan leading the charge. It didn’t matter what line they took on the track, it still led them to the front. With the new feature of drivers being able to talk to all other competitors via radio communications, it allowed Ragan to help lead the couple through traffic. It was like Helen Hunt guiding Bill Paxton through the carnage on the roads from Twister.
Heck, some might see it as Ragan being just as responsible as Bayne for the stunning upset. That is possible, but there is no denying that Ragan was responsible for his loss. He even admitted to it, though he didn’t necessarily see it the same way NASCAR did.
“I know what the rules are,” he said. “I felt like the leader had the start of the race. I felt like we fired and I started to move down right before the start/finish line, but I don’t think I crossed that invisible line that separates the top and the bottom. I also haven’t seen the replay, but to win these Cup races you can’t make any mistakes, and the mistake I made hurt us, but our UPS team did a great job. I’m proud of all our UPS guys. A lot of UPS fans should be proud. It’ll take us a long time to forget this one, but we’ll move on to Phoenix and the sooner we can win one, the sooner we can forget it.”
Phoenix will be a challenge; in eight starts at PIR Ragan has just one top 10 – a 10th back in the 2008 fall race – and no laps led. On top of all the questions surrounding his future, he will also have the issue of trying to keep the costly punishment out of his mind in the weeks to come. For Ragan, he needs to answer the question many are wondering – will he be able to overcome this penalty? He has the chance, and it will be interesting to see how he responds after the stop and go penalty late on Sunday relegated him to a 15th place finish.
No one knows just how Ragan will perform in the coming weeks, but the past may indicate a glimmer of hope. Remember how much he struggled in his rookie season in 2007? He’d just replaced Mark Martin, who in 20 years never had less than 10 top 10s driving for Roush. In his first season, Ragan had just three top 10s, and finished on the lead lap only 16 times. You get the picture, it wasn’t pretty. Many were questioning, myself included, why Roush put Ragan in the car when he hadn’t even run a full Nationwide season.
He turned it around in 2008, with six top 5s, 14 top 10s, and a 13th place finish in the final point standings. With a solid sophomore season, Ragan showed he won’t be deterred by what the critics say. It was certainly unexpected, but more importantly, he proved he can contend to make the Chase. Contending is no longer enough though; with Bayne in perfect position to take over this ride in 2012, Ragan likely must make the Chase this year to keep his job.
Regardless of what happens for the rest of Ragan’s tenure at RFR, this penalty will likely be the deciding factor. Whether it leads him out of ride or motivates him to a career year remains to be seen. One thing is for sure – he has a lot to prove in a little amount of time.
Author’s Note: On a mostly unrelated note, Bayne celebrated his 500 win the day after his birthday. It was my Mom’s birthday this week as well and I would like to take a second and wish her a happy belated birthday. Happy Birthday Mom! You’re the best!
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