They say the true mark of a man is how he handles adversity, the benchmark through which we separate the average and exceptional athletes. Yet for every Jamie McMurray, whose career nearly derailed for good before bouncing back into Daytona 500 victory lane last year, there’s a thousand men we’ll never know, drivers whose talent level could never triumph over their inward emotional combustion. Sport is a mental game, even more so when breaking to pieces just moments from reaching the top of your profession; it’s why people like Jean Van de Velde (golf’s British Open), Bill Buckner (baseball’s World Series) and perhaps even J.R. Hildebrand (Indy 500 – to be determined) go from promising futures to comprising an entire season of episodes for Dr. Phil.
David Ragan can relate. For all intents and purposes, he should have been holding a spot on that couch, preparing for a pink slip after blowing his February chance to be famous forever in NASCAR’s Great American Race. For after jumping to the front with less than three to go, Ragan’s Daytona disaster came by jumping the gun on the green-white-checkered restart that followed; it was a gut-wrenching, shoot-yourself-in-the-foot type of penalty that was 110% preventable. And while dropping out of contention, as the kicker he handed victory straight to the 20-year-old “young gun” with potential he’d been working with all race long – a label he once held – in Trevor Bayne. All of a sudden, racing America found its different, charismatic hero to romanticize, a man who shares a paycheck with Ragan’s employer, Roush Fenway Racing, and who Mr. Roush would love to slide behind the wheel of a Cup car in 2012.
Talk about writing your own funeral; halfway in the coffin, it would have been so easy there for Ragan to reach up, close the lid, and fade away into Casey Atwood territory. But he didn’t. Instead, Ragan’s fight came through a three-step process so many in his position fail to recognize, a recovery that ended with the man’s No. 6 Ford sitting in Victory Lane Saturday night – the pinnacle of success at the very track that almost claimed his career.
*#1) Accepting The Blame.*
Immediately after the race in February, while distraught over the penalty itself Ragan took time to immediately acknowledge the error.
“To win these Cup races, you can’t make any mistakes and the mistake I made hurt us,” he explained after exiting his car that day. “I just got to the bottom a little too early.”
That wasn’t the mark of a man in denial; instead, it was the first step towards moving on. It seems silly, but so often an athlete either mouths an apology without meaning or simply never acknowledge those shortcomings at all (LeBron James, anyone?) In the weeks and months that followed, analysts stayed stuck on that Daytona moment but Ragan immediately turned the page.
*#2) Don’t Get Too Low… Or Too High.*
A man who keeps his emotions in check, Ragan was notably subdued for a first-time victor Saturday night. For a man who’s just 25, the “aw shucks, that’s nice … now what’s next?” maturity level would have given Mark Martin a run for his money.
“Yeah, I guess that’s just my character,” he explained, similar to when he won his first Nationwide race a year ago – but barely cracked a smile on camera. “I don’t get up and jump up-and-down and act crazy and foolish. I’m kind of already thinking about Kentucky a little bit [next week] – that’s an important race for us.”
Some won’t agree with such a librarian style-approach. But it clearly helped Ragan heal the wounds of Daytona, where a more emotional athlete would have gotten caught up in the low and catapulted into a depression that could have cost them a career.
“Everybody kept talking about it,” said Ragan of that 500 gaffe, who drowned out the criticism and simply focused on the season at hand. “I just tried to take the positive from it and move on.”
*#3) Don’t Try And Earn It All Back In One Week.*
In the ugly aftermath of Daytona, when Trevor Bayne was busy becoming the Flavor of the Month Ragan simply went back to work, steadily trying to push his way back into contention. Despite getting involved in a crash at Phoenix – a result that makes this comeback even more impressive – Ragan followed with a 22nd, 16th, and 22nd that kept him the caboose of Roush Fenway’s four-car Ford train. But slow and steady changes continued behind the scenes, with an assist from former Daytona 500-winning crew chief Drew Blickensderfer, who became the epicenter of a changing attitude within the No. 6. Add in the driver’s continued focus in the face of wavering results, and hard work started finally paying off in April; Ragan posted back-to-back top-10 finishes at Martinsville and Texas, the first time he’d done so since _2008._
“They’ve been improving,” said teammate Matt Kenseth, the “pusher” in Ragan’s run to restrictor-plate glory at Daytona. “You could see it coming. I know it’s at a speedway, but you could see it coming to other tracks, too. He’s been running better, and they’ve been faster in practice, they’ve been racing better and qualifying better.”
It was a slow, steady build towards redemption, a reasoned reminder of the type of personality Roush saw when looking to replace a legend in Mark Martin. Early on in his career, Ragan showcased those skills necessary to survive in that tricky landscape and despite his reasoned response to the madness Saturday night, don’t be fooled; there’s a sense of relief he finally lived up to some of those old expectations.
“Now that we’ve got this win, it lets a lot of pressure off in some sense,” the driver admitted. “We finally got our first win at a points race here at Daytona. We’ve got a chance to make the Chase. But now there is even more pressure to go out and stay in that top 20 in points, to perform well at these upcoming races.”
Ragan’s also put the pressure back on everyone else, nervous bubble drivers like Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Clint Bowyer, Tony Stewart and teammate Greg Biffle who now must win to feel safe. And for UPS, a company who seemed headed for all but certain divorce from their young pupil, what now? Will they stand behind a congratulatory statement Saturday night, choosing to stick around for “many victories” to back a pairing that’s been nothing but a disappointment since 2009?
“Certainly we’re hopeful that UPS will carry on in a meaningful regard with the sponsorship of the [No.] 6 car,” says Jack Roush. “Now that we are in negotiation, we don’t have assurance that that’s going to be the case. But David has arrived at the upper echelon. He’s a winner now. And he’s given a win to UPS, and hopefully they’ll consider that as they think about the value of the program and what it means to all their employees and what it means to their customers to have this association.”
Whatever happens next is anyone’s guess. For now, all NASCAR Nation knows for sure is that Ragan finds himself a Sprint Cup winner, triumphant at the very track that threatened to tear his career apart. After years of being stuck in neutral, it was a weekend that taught us that sometimes, fighting through adversity can be a good thing.
“I think a win anywhere on the circuit would have been great, and we would have moved on and talked about it,” he said. “But coming back here to Daytona, being able to run the same type of race we ran in February, and you know learning from our mistake, not making a mistake. We had a couple opportunities to do it on the last few restarts, and I didn’t do it. So that’s gratifying that we were able to come back to Daytona and kind of prove to the racetrack that we’re better than that and we can take you.”
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