Race Weekend Central

Fact Or Fiction: Two NASCAR Youngsters, Two Very Different Directions

David Ragan’s career is hitting a crossroads. Will Talladega be the perfect place for him to start a sudden 2011 surge?

*FACT: David Ragan Might Save His Roush Career After All*

Call him a victim of the UPS curse, the one-year wonder or Tony Stewart’s favorite nickname: a dart without feathers. But whatever reason you assign to David Ragan’s extended slump, this much was clear entering 2011: it had to end this year. With the big money packaging company looking to flex their muscle elsewhere – Richard Childress Racing has been mentioned as a potential suitor – anything less than the Chase probably isn’t good enough for them to re-sign on the dotted line. Add in a crippling Daytona 500 penalty, dropping Ragan from the top spot while future competitor for Roush employment Trevor Bayne stepped in to score the upset and most everyone but spiteful Fed Ex employees had the Georgia driver already packing his bags.

But before we write this guy off as yet another “Casey Atwood” of the “young guns” generation, hold on just a second. It took Ragan awhile to recover from that Great American embarrassment but once he did, the last four races have been much improved: two top-10 finishes, three top-10 qualifying runs (including his first pole at Texas) and hitting the top of the charts in practice sessions during each of the last two weeks. No doubt, it’s the most impressive the driver of the No. 6 Ford has looked since coming within a whisker of making the Chase in 2008.

Is it a case of too little, too late? After all, Roush prospect Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. is leading the Nationwide Series point standings and Childress is desperately in need of additional sponsorship for Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton (2012) and even Kevin Harvick. Ragan getting kicked to the curb over those drivers has to be a done deal… right?
Not necessarily. The way these Fords have been running lately, a trained monkey can drive them competitively and if the right dominoes fall their way, one could see all Roush Fenway Racing drivers making the Chase – even Ragan. They’ve done it before (see: 2005, when the team ran five cars) and could that publicity be enough to make their beleaguered big money backer reconsider? Internally at Roush, fellow rival Bayne has slipped up lately, without a top-15 finish since that 500 win and one can argue Ragan has had a more consistent season across the board.

That brings us to the perfect bowtie for this little snippet: Talladega, Sunday afternoon. It’s a chance for Ragan redemption post-Daytona, the spot of his first Nationwide Series victory and the lone spot on the Sprint Cup circuit where he’s registered more than one career top-5 finish. If the No. 6 car could sneak a victory here, just as Silly Season gets its wheels turning… you never know, right? I’ll tell you this much: Ragan keeping this ride intact would turn out to be one of the biggest Silly Season upsets we’ll see this decade.

As the NASCAR Chris Berman would say, “That’s why they run the races…”

*FICTION: Toyota’s Entrance Into The Sport Will Lead To Total Domination*

Remember that line we were fed, the second Camrys stepped foot on the landscape of Sprint Cup? Well four years, seven races into their tenure, let’s look at where the Toyota programs are right now. We’ve got one driver – yes, one – inside the top 15 (Kyle Busch), a rent-a-driver in 16th who’s bolting for Chevrolet after the season (Kasey Kahne) and engine problems with their best team (Joe Gibbs Racing) even a fifteen-second Michael Waltrip sponsor soliloquy can’t solve. They have yet to win a Cup championship, a Cup manufacturer’s title, the Daytona 500 or even the Brickyard 400. Turns out reports of “steamrolling the competition” were greatly exaggerated; instead, what we have is manufacturer parity and four makes, despite this one’s recent slump still capable of winning on any given weekend.

So tell me why it was so bad for them to get involved in the sport again?

*FACT: Joey Logano’s Chase chances are over*

Last week, we talked how Denny Hamlin was in trouble but this one’s far more certain: Sliced Bread has seen his third-year “breakout” season officially turn stale. Texas wasn’t fully his fault; bad luck in the form of contact with David Reutimann’s No. 00 in the pits wiped out any chance of salvaging a solid finish. But one-quarter of the way into 2011, the stats for the 20-year-old make you think he should be optioned back to triple-A: zero top-10 finishes, zero laps led, one lead lap finish, and 69 points outside playoff contention. It’s a shocking turn of events, one that has me feeling a dominant Nationwide Series win, ASAP, is where Logano could solve a lot of nagging confidence problems. If only Carl Edwards, teammate Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski would sit out a week… but regardless, it’s not a good scene over at the No. 20 camp right now.

*FICTION: Talladega Tandems Will Keep Us From “The Big One”*

After Daytona spread out the “pack” over much of its 500 miles, there’s hope this Spring Talladega will finally see its 43-car field spread out over portions of the 2.66-mile oval. The raw speed from different pairs could break up the pack, making it impossible for the typical, field-decimating wreck to happen that jeopardizes driver safety while turning the day into a glorified Demolition Derby on wheels.
Sure, it’s always nice to have hope… just don’t bet on it. Regardless of the plate package, regardless of circumstances entering the race the sport’s largest superspeedway has kept virtually every car superglued together in the same Slinky-like competition from start to finish for decades. As long as they run wide open, alliances will dissolve into every man for himself down the stretch; and when that happens, like it or not too many cars always try and fit into the same space side-by-side. We all wish the “Big One” didn’t have to happen, but it’s a product of the racing in Alabama and until those plates disappear, it’ll always be.

Tuesday on the Frontstretch:
“5 Points to Ponder: Which RCR Will Show Up?, Cole Whitt’s Coming, And Do Or Die For…”:https://frontstretch.com/bkeith/33576/
“Dialing It In: Can Practice Make Perfect? David Ragan Sure Hopes So”:https://frontstretch.com/jpennell/33575/
“Who’s Hot / Who’s Not In NASCAR: Texas-Talladega Edition”:https://frontstretch.com/sdreyer/33555/
“Talking NASCAR TV: Old Dogs, New Tricks For FOX At Texas”:https://frontstretch.com/pallaway/33577/

“Intermediate Masters”:http://www.athlonsports.com/columns/nascar-monday-recap/intermediate-masters

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