David Ragan heads back to site of Daytona 500 heartbreak
Of Cup's winless drivers, David Ragan is most likely to author a breakthrough run
After his near-miss in February, Ragan should be one of the leaders Saturday
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Trevor Bayne are also likely to be frontrunners at Daytona
There was nothing but a ribbon of empty road in front of him and, further ahead, the biggest prize of his career: the Daytona 500 checkered flag. As the Sprint Cup race last February was extended beyond regulation because of a caution flag, David Ragan led the field to the green flag for a few more laps at the 2.5-mile tri-oval, confident that he was going to win for the first time in his Cup career. In second place, next to him for the restart, was rookie Trevor Bayne.
"Trevor had the best car out there, but my plan was to get in front of him, get hooked up, and then he'd push me to the win," Ragan recalled recently as he stood inside the hauler of his No. 6 Ford. "But it just didn't work out the way I had planned."
No, it didn't. Before he reached the start/finish line on the restart, Ragan dove from the high line to the low line. Though this clearly is a rule violation, NASCAR had rarely -- if ever -- penalized a driver for this maneuver in the past. But the sanctioning body nailed Ragan, forcing him to the rear of the field. And just like that, his chance to win NASCAR's most prestigious race went poof! Instead of Ragan, winless in his five full seasons on the Cup circuit, being the storybook, underdog winner, it was the 20-year-old Bayne -- driving a Ford for the underfunded Wood Brothers, a part-time team -- who pulled off what is perhaps the biggest surprise victory in the history of the Great American Race.
"You bet I think about that race a lot because I was in a great position to win," Ragan says. "But we should be really good when we go back to Daytona."
I agree. In the magazine this week I write about the myriad difficulties of winning your first Sprint Cup race, and I note that of all the drivers on the Cup circuit who currently have yet to reach Victory Lane, it's Ragan who's in the best position to author that breakthrough performance. After all, he's on a top flight team (Roush Fenway Racing), he's had several near misses this season (aside from the Daytona 500, he has two top-5 finishes, including a second place run at Charlotte), and he's widely considered throughout the garage to be a grade-A young talent.
Look for Ragan to be among the leaders as the laps wind down on Saturday night at Daytona for the Coke Zero 400, which marks the unofficial start to the second half of the 2011 NASCAR season. Picking the winner at a restrictor plate is always a crapshoot -- the plates tend to level the playing field between the have- and have-not teams, therefore making the checkered flag a possibility for long shots like Bayne -- but I'm going with Ragan. He won't let a Daytona win slip away again.
Here are four other drivers I'll be watching on Saturday:
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
As long as he's with Hendrick Motorsports, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be a favorite to win at Daytona. Though he only has two victories in 23 career starts at the track where his father lost his life 10 years ago, Earnhardt continues to excel at Daytona. Every time the circuit stops here, he has one of the fastest cars in the field, one of the few drivers consistently able to drive from the back of the pack to the front without much trouble.
Earnhardt looked to be in fine position to win in February -- and what a story that would have been, taking the checkers at Daytona 10 years after the worst day of his life -- but then he got caught up in an accident late and finished 24th. Given that Earnhardt is in a current state of free fall in the standings, dropping from third to seventh after back-to-back poor runs at Michigan and Sonoma, he could use a solid top-5 finish on Saturday night.
2. Kurt Busch
Over the last month no driver has dominated like Kurt Busch. He's won three of the last four poles, finished second at Pocono in mid-June, then won last Sunday at Sonoma. Over this stretch he's surged from sixth to fourth in the standings and, barring a major collapse, should easily qualify for the Chase.
One thing Busch has never done is win a restrictor plate race. That could change on Saturday. In his last 10 starts at Daytona he has six top-5 finishes. Momentum is a very real force in NASCAR, and Busch currently has more of this X-factor in his pit than anyone else.
3. Trevor Bayne
What has Trevor Bayne done since winning the 500? Not much. He missed several races due to a mysterious illness -- he spent two weeks at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.; doctors never figured out what triggered his major symptom of severely blurred vision -- but even when he's been on the track he's been a non-factor. In his eight Sprint Cup starts since Daytona, he's failed to crack the top-15 and has finished 30th or worse five times.
Yet this spring he did lead five laps at Talladega -- the other restrictor plate on the schedule -- before he crashed and he flashed impressive closing speed in the 500. Could he win it again? I doubt it, but Bayne is a storyline worth watching.
4. Kevin Harvick
Before the Daytona 500, I thought Kevin Harvick was the driver to beat. But then he blew an engine early and sputtered to the garage.
But barring another mechanical failure, he should be formidable on Saturday. Last year in this race, after all, he won the pole and then beat his Richard Childress Racing teammate Clint Bowyer to the finish line to take the checkered flag. It was a dominating performance, one that cemented Harvick's status as an elite restrictor-plate racer. One statistic reveals it all: Harvick has won two of the last four plate races.
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