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Did You Notice? Ragan’s Rise Equals Kenseth’s Fall? A Chase Race to Safety & Stewart’s Success

Did You Notice? How different things look now for David Ragan now than at this point a year ago? Let’s take a look at the stats through 25 races of his rookie season:

Zero wins, one top five (Daytona 500 in February), one top 10 (that same Daytona), two DNFs, 22nd in driver points, and getting walloped by Juan Pablo Montoya in the Rookie of the Year race.

How disappointing a performance was that for the freshman? Consider that Mark Martin – the longtime driver of Roush’s flagship No. 6 car – was sitting 24th in the standings, just 46 points behind the rookie while manning a No. 01 car part-time that had changed owners just one month earlier. To make matters worse, Martin accomplished his total with eight fewer starts under his belt, outshining Ragan in every way imaginable in making even the casual observer wonder why there wasn’t a bigger push to keep the veteran in the AAA Ford part-time. Nearly one year to the day after Tony Stewart called him a “dart without feathers,” Ragan looked like a dart going nowhere – even with the veteran guidance of Jimmy Fennig by his side.

But everyone stayed patient, and 12 months later – while Martin’s career continues to chug along – it’s Ragan who’s been vaulted into the spotlight. Just one spot away from an improbable Chase bid, totals of five top-five and nine top-10 finishes underscore the consistency he’s developed in a sophomore season that’s been nothing like a slump. When you think of the pressure this kid went through – he finished last year 23rd in points, the lowest the No. 6 car ran in the 20-year history it’s been on the Cup tour – it’s an amazing story of perseverance that Ragan’s pulled himself from Roush’s No. 5 driver to No. 2.

Yep, that’s right folks; Matt Kenseth, stand aside. What Ragan’s solid performance has earned him is the reward of top-notch sponsorship in UPS. The deal – expected to be announced this month – will mirror Carl Edwards’s AFLAC totals of $26 million per season, establishing Ragan as a long-term investment at Roush for years to come. Remember, this is a sponsor that wasn’t going to settle for anything short of a rockstar. Yeah, I admit their choices were limited, but this company must be convinced to a certain degree it’s Ragan who’s going to be handed the keys to the Roush castle along with Edwards. After several years of struggle under Dale Jarrett and David Reutimann, it’s very clear they want their investment to be rewarded with a driver that’s capable of title contention.

So what does this all mean for Kenseth? It’ll be interesting to wait and see. Remember, the 2003 champ will be a free agent after 2009 at age 37, and while good friend Greg Biffle resigned on the dotted line with RFR, that doesn’t necessarily mean Kenseth will do the same. He’s now seen Roush make two big commitments to who he believes will be the future stars of the program. Where does that leave him, the most consistent driver at RFR over the last seven seasons? Kenseth is someone who’s two years removed from nearly scoring his second title over Jimmie Johnson, and still believes he’s “A” quality material. But is there room for three “A” quality guys on that squad?

Here’s an interesting, far-fetched theory I came up with that makes sense. Keep in mind Kenseth’s friend Martin now drives for Hendrick Motorsports – but he’s only doing it for one year. Kenseth also has a good friend in Dale Earnhardt Jr. over at HMS, and sat there and watched the organization take at least one title out of his grasp. Could it be a case of “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” next year if he has another winless season in which the No. 17 winds up ninth or 10th in the points?

It sounds a little crazy, but I think that after this UPS announcement, a move for Kenseth is certainly possible. What a crazy transition: it tells one of the series’ most surprising new stars that he’s finally made the big time, and it tells one of the series’ most dependable players he may not have what he wants at RFR over the long-term. The circumstances may have been different, but remember this. Jeff Burton was 36 when he left Roush after a decade of service. And – you guessed it – Kenseth will have a decade of Cup service under his belt for RFR next year.

Did You Notice? All the huff and puff from Dario Franchitti about “wanting to make a go of it in NASCAR” snuffed out the minute Chip Ganassi simply manned up and offered him a slot on a championship-quality ride in the IRL? It’s really a shame, because I thought the Scotsman was showing great progress once he stepped back to the Nationwide Series – where he should have been all along. An outside pole and an 11th-place finish at Bristol of all places was a sign there might have been potential for his move to stock cars. Too bad we’ll never get to see it… you’d have to think that either Franchitti was being completely dishonest, or that sponsorship never materialized to the level that he thought the team could be competitive in NASCAR next year.

Now, the big long-shot question is would Montoya make the move if sponsorship doesn’t materialize on the NASCAR side? Boy, would that be a Ganassi lineup that’d put some fear into the rest of the open-wheel teams out there… and be a troubling trend that NASCAR’s suddenly being out-publicized again by a series that’s shown small but steady growth numbers this season.

Did You Notice? Stewart isn’t screwing around? Garage buzz all year has centered around the outstanding job Jay Frye has done in whipping Team Red Bull into shape. If there’s an Executive of the Year, he’s it. Pretty much every influential member of that team will stand up and applaud the guy who’s the key to putting Brian Vickers’s team from DNQs to the verge of the Chase. So, what does Stewart do now that he’s in need of quality manpower? Offer Frye an A-quality job to do the exact same thing with SHR. And since Frye’s a Chevrolet guy – remember, he worked for MB2 Motorsports for years – it’d be surprising not to see him take the bait.

In the meantime, Stewart needs a crew chief he can respect, but who also knows the ins and outs of the CoT while having past success on his track record. Well, who better to understand Hendrick chassis than one of their top men – Darian Grubb – someone who comes doused with a resume’s worth of success as a crew chief. Not only did Grubb win the Daytona 500 with Johnson (done while Chad Knaus served a four-race suspension), but he’s the only one credited with getting the underperforming Casey Mears a victory. Both Grubb and Alan Gustafson are very good crew chiefs, but it is notable that Grubb and Mears meshed much better than the Gustafson-Mears combo ever did. Can he do the same with a more “mood swingy” Stewart? We’ll have to wait and see… but there’s no question the pick is a high-quality selection. Which means so far – gulp – you’ve got to give Stewart nothing but top-notch grades as he pursues his new ownership venture.

Did You Notice? We’ve been waiting – and waiting – and waiting for Richmond to finally figure out who’s going to be in the top 12. And for the first time since ’06, there actually is some drama as to who’s going to make it and who doesn’t. But at this point, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Clint Bowyer getting knocked out. Consider that if Ragan matches his career-best finish of third (which is possible, seeing as it came in this very race last fall) the following scenarios occur regardless of what Kasey Kahne does:

Stewart (eighth) clinches his spot in the Chase.
Kenseth (ninth) must finish around 34th (let’s not confuse you with the laps led stuff).
Jeff Gordon (10th) must finish around 32nd.
Denny Hamlin (11th) must finish around 29th… and let’s be honest, that’s not going to happen without a ton of bad luck considering how this car dominated the May race.

Of course, Ragan could really put the pressure on those guys with a win, but considering he doesn’t have one yet at the Cup level, anything better than third seems like a stretch. So, that means for the four guys I just mentioned, all they need to do is play it safe at the ¾-mile track, which means – caution, bad news coming – they’ll race just hard enough without putting yourself in harm’s way.

So, let’s summarize: three cars racing their guts out (Bowyer, Ragan, Kahne) and four guys playing it safe (Stewart, Kenseth, Gordon, Hamlin). The other seven guys in the top 12 are already guaranteed their spots… hmm. That’s not terrible, but it’s not exactly the pre-Chase excitement we thought we’d get about three weeks ago.

Did You Notice? I didn’t talk at all about California this week? That’s because I took my yearly vacation during that weekend – the one time I’m completely away from the track and don’t even catch any NASCAR on TV. Let’s put it this way: spending four days covering the races in 110 degree weather last year was the most fun I’ll never have again. Labor Day in California, we hardly knew ye… nor did we want to.

And frankly, it looks like I didn’t miss much.

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