Ragan peers on the edge of the Chase with two races left
One of the few surprises of the 2008 season is the sophomore surge of David Ragan. Despite winning 2007 rookie-of-the-year honors in the Nationwide Series, his first season of Cup racing was nothing to brag about. He finished 23rd in the points and ended the season with more DNFs (4) than top-10s (3).
But this year Ragan has reason to boast. Just two races from the start of the Chase, the 22-year-old driver is in 13th place in the standings, just 12 points out of the top 12. It's quite possible that this year's Chase could include a rookie for the first time since Denny Hamlin qualified in '06.
Certainly, Ragan has benefited from being part of the powerful Roush Fenway Racing operation. Outside of Joe Gibbs Racing, the Roush team has been the best on the Cup circuit virtually all season. Fast cars win races, and there's little doubt that Ragan is getting a fast car to drive every week.
But there's more to the kid's rise than just a fast car. The Cup season, consisting of 36 races and covering 10 months, is the longest and most grueling test in all of professional sports. And Ragan did not get off to a strong start. A crash at Daytona in Week 1 led to a 42nd-place finish and a points position outside of the top 35. It took him over a month to crack the top 20, and another month just to nudge into the top 15. That he has been able to maintain, and even improve on, that standing is a testament to how far he has come in two years. In NASCAR, consistency is the hallmark of winning drivers. Ragan has set career highs for himself this season in both top-5 and top-10 finishes (five and nine), and his average finish of 15.9 is a big improvement over the 24.5 he earned last year.
There is good reason to think that Ragan will be ensconced in the top 12 after this Sunday's race in California, where he has never finished outside of the top 20 in three career starts. Forget about the sophomore slump. Ragan is ready to be a sophomore star.
HOW TO DRIVE
Auto Club Speedway
Kasey Kahne talks about running at the Fontana, Calif., track: "I think California was built to be like Michigan, but they're pretty different tracks. California doesn't have a lot of banking but it is a pretty fast track. I think, like every track, getting the car to handle in the corners is the biggest thing. It's a two-mile track and the front- and backstretches are pretty long. I do think it is a track that can be tough on engines, as we discovered last year, but it is a track I enjoy so I'm looking forward to it."
8: Number of starts at California's Auto Club Speedway for both Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards
1: Number of victories at California, respectively, for both Busch and Edwards
13: Number of top-10 finishes at California, combined, for both Busch and Edwards
September 5, 2004: Elliott Sadler leads 59 laps and holds off Kasey Kahne (his future teammate at Gillett Evernham Motorsports) to win the Pop Secret 500 at Fontana. To date, Sadler's most recent win in Cup competition.