Posted: Sunday July 3, 2011 1:17AM ; Updated: Sunday July 3, 2011 1:17AM
Brant James
Brant James>INSIDE NASCAR

Five things we learned at Daytona

Story Highlights

David Ragan finally got that first win after prevailing in the Coke Zero 400

Kevin Harvick took advantage of Carl Edwards' bad night to take the points lead

Chad Knaus' late-race decision to change strategy irritated Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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Final Laps: Redemption for Ragan at Daytona
Source:SI
After a mistake in the Daytona 500, David Ragan rebounds to capture his first career Sprint Cup Series victory amid calamity on the final lap of the Coke Zero 400.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- David Ragan figured he'd get around to mowing his grass and maybe find some place for a nice dinner this weekend. Now he has something to celebrate. And the mower might sit a while longer.

After spending weeks ruing a late-race mistake that likely cost him his first career win in the season-opening Daytona 500 and cast Trevor Bayne as NASCAR's new sensation, the understated 25-year-old from Unadilla, Ga., rode the fickle nature of restrictor plate racing and a push from teammate Matt Kenseth to win the Coke Zero 400 on Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway.

"That does ease the pain from February," he said.

The win might have broader reverberations for both Ragan and Roush Fenway Racing, as the driver finally delivered in his third season for powerful sponsor UPS, whose deal with the race team expires at the end of the season. Or Ragan may simply have gone from a driver who doesn't win to one who has won just once in 163 tries. UPS issued a statement immediately after the race in which vice president of sponsorships and events Ron Rogowski stated, "David has a great future ahead of him and we look forward to many more trips to victory lane with him."

But those were thoughts and issues for another night.

Five things we learned at Daytona:

1. Carl Edwards' plummet from the points lead was crushing. Edwards' 10-week grip on the driver points lead was loosened on Lap 23 when he was turned into a wall near the entry to pit road by teammate Greg Biffle as they drafted. If only the car had been finished off at that point. Edwards persevered through two pit stops, having to address both tire rub and exhaust and heat issues inside the No. 99 Ford that had him call for ice and a hose-down by Lap 43. Team owner Jack Roush said crushed panels had allowed a "serious contamination" of his fresh air supply.

Edwards finished 37th, but fell to just second in points, five points behind new leader Kevin Harvick.

2. There was no Trevor Bayne sequel. Bayne gave NASCAR and his career a mighty push in the season-opening Daytona 500, exploiting a late-race penalty to leader David Ragan to assume the lead and become the youngest winner -- at 20 years and one day -- of NASCAR's greatest event. In doing so, the affable, presentable Bayne took the fabled Wood Brothers and the No. 21 Ford back to Victory Lane for the first time in the Daytona 500 since David Pearson in 1976. His fable took a somber turn when he missed more than a month because of an undiagnosed illness that has been treated as Lyme disease. The swing in fortune and emotion was not lost on him back at the scene of his greatest triumph and latest disappointment, especially after qualifying second.

"I can't explain what I've been through this year," he said. "It's tough at times and it's good at times, but I just know that I've got really good people behind."

Bayne was running mid-pack into Turn 2 on Lap 5 when he was nudged into the wall by drafting partner Brad Keselowski. Television replays showed the No. 2 Dodge was lower in the banking than most of the pushing cars in the two-car draft, and hooked the No. 21 Ford into the wall. Bayne's car suffered irreparable damage and was scored 41st in his tenth race of the season.

"I don't know if I turned down going in or he turned up," Bayne said. "Either way, I got hooked."

Though Bayne gained notoriety, he didn't necessarily gain a bevy of willing draft partners and even though his Wood Brothers is essentially a satellite organization of Roush Fenway, those four drivers had already opted to work with each other. That left Bayne groping for help, and he lined up with Penske Racing's Keselowski after working briefly with Richard Childress Racing's Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton.

"We found the 2 car. I wanted to be a pusher because I know that these things can happen," Bayne said. "He got to us and was pushing us down the front stretch. I was still kind of lifting a little bit, letting him get to my bumper, and then I got back to the gas wide-open. I don't know if I turned down more getting in or if he kind of came up across our bumper, but, either way, our bumpers caught wrong and it sent us spinning."

3. Joey Logano reacts well to extreme pressure (or rumor). The 21-year-old's sizeable reputation as a future star -- burnished by Mark Martin declaring when he was 15 that could be one of the greatest NASCAR drivers ever -- has both enabled and prolonged opportunities and at times been a burden. In his third full season in the No. 20 Toyota in which Tony Stewart won two championships, Logano proclaimed before the season he was ready to become a consistent winner and a Chase for the Championship qualifier. Sixteen races into the season he'd been neither, winless and mired in 23rd in points. This as rumors circulated Joe Gibbs Racing could be interested in adding Roush Fenway free agent Carl Edwards, perhaps in Logano's high-profile Home Depot program.

Roughly coinciding with the emergence of those rumors, Logano won the pole and finished sixth last week at Sonoma, Calif., then finished third on Saturday at Daytona, a night after winning the Nationwide event.

"I need something to turn around here," Logano said. "Recently it seems like everything's been going the wrong way. Ever since we got that pole last week and won the West race and had a good run there in Sonoma, coming here and getting a first and a third."

Logano improved to 20th in points on Saturday.

4. Tony Stewart's progress is blocked. The two-time series champion has slogged through an inconsistent season since finishing second and briefly holding the points lead after the third race of the year. Despite being taken out in a retaliatory wreck at Sonoma by Brian Vickers, Stewart, in 12th place, still held the final "wild card" spot in the Chase. The two drivers with the most wins in points slots 11-through-20 earn Chase berths, but only one -- Denny Hamlin -- had a victory entering Saturday's race. Ragan's victory vaulted him three spots to 17th in points, putting him in control of the other wild card with nine races remaining until the playoffs begin. And his bid to qualify for the Chase could be undone altogether if he follows through on his vow to wreck -- no matter the consequences to his season -- anyone who he feels is illegally blocking, which was at the root of his incident with Vickers.

5. Jimmie Johnson (or maybe Chad Knaus) still owes Dale Earnhardt Jr. one. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus had declared they were indebted to Earnhardt Jr. after his assist in Johnson winning at Talladega this spring and the plan seemed to be going swimmingly throughout much of Saturday's race. They ran in front. They ran in the middle. They ran in the back, as if casing the field. But their attempt to return to the lead in the last 15 laps was undone by their inability to remain linked together in the two-car draft and Knaus' decision to pit under a caution with 11 laps left, leaving Earnhardt Jr. unattended. Earnhardt Jr., adamant before a final restart that he would make his own way, with Johnson's help or not, eventually found another helper in Jeff Burton and was scored as high as fifth with a lap remaining but eventually slumped to 19th because of a late melee. Johnson finished 20th.

Earnhardt Jr., who dislikes this new form of plate racing, was displeased.

"I'm driving my car, doing what I am told and they decided to do something different," Earnhardt Jr. said. I can't run the whole damn thing from the seat of the damn race car. I don't know how that affected us, if it did at all. It probably didn't. It was a foolish race."

 
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