Ragan seeks more superspeedway magic
David Ragan thought he belonged in NASCAR’s top division right from the beginning.
All it took was starting out his rookie season in 2007 by finishing fifth in the sport’s most famous race, the Daytona 500.
“(That) was probably the first time in a Sprint Cup car that I felt like, man, this is where I need to be,” said Ragan, who made some late model starts at Caraway Speedway on his way up. “I felt comfortable, and I was at ease after that race knowing that I could compete with the best.”
He’s been at his best at Daytona and the similar Talladega Superspeedway, where engine restrictions and the aerodynamic draft result in cars running together in big packs, giving virtually every driver a chance to win.
Ragan has been good enough at that type of racing to post both of his Cup victories. The first came in July of 2011 at Daytona before he was released by Roush at the end of that year, the victim of a spotty record and dwindling sponsorship. The other triumph came at Talladega this spring when he got a last-lap push by teammate David Gilliland that turned into a 1-2 finish for underfunded Front Row Motorsports in the biggest surprise of the season.
Now, he comes back to Daytona seeking more superspeedway magic in Saturday night’s 400-mile race.
He realizes that Daytona is a different animal than Talladega because it is not as wide and smooth, making how well a car drives a factor, particularly in the heat of summer when oils in the asphalt come to the track surface.
“It’s a lot easier to pass (at Talladega),” Ragan said. “It’s wider so you can maneuver. Handling doesn’t matter as much, so you can take two tires, you can take no tires very often and you’re still fine.
“But Daytona is opposite, and I think that the only thing that’s in my back pocket from those speedway wins is maybe some confidence in the other drivers’ eyes that, ‘Hey, David can make a good decision; we can stick with him; I feel comfortable drafting with him.’ I think that’s the only thing that we can really take.
“Hopefully that win in the spring, some guys still remember that and they’re comfortable drafting with me. And I’ve got a lot of friends; that’s a good thing. It worked out perfect having David Gilliland as a teammate right behind me. I knew what he was going to do without even having to ask or think about it. If that happens again, that’s certainly a positive for us.”
But, given the fickle nature of pack racing, where a wrong move by one driver can result in a massive crash, Ragan is well aware that he can’t plan anything in advance of Saturday night, even if he sees that he and Gilliland have strong cars in today’s opening practice sessions.
“You can’t sit down on Tuesday or Thursday or Friday and make a plan,” Ragan said. “You’ve got to make decisions as the flow of the race changes. If they have a big wreck early in the race and there’s only 25 cars running, then your strategy changes. If there’s 40 cars still running with 50 laps to go, your strategy changes again.
“You’ve just got to know all the factors and rely on your crew chief and your spotter, and myself and my judgment, and try to make the best decision you can. We’ll try to look at all those factors. I’ll know what kind of car I’ll have, whether it’s a very, very fast car or an average car, whether it’s good in a tight pack or by itself. You weigh in all those factors, and it’s ultimately up to me to make the best decision, and hopefully I’ll prepare myself enough where I can make a good decision, and if we’re in contention at the end of the race, I feel like my chances are as good as any at making the right moves in the closing laps of the race.”