Ragan must recover quickly
Trevor Bayne is suddenly the hottest thing going in NASCAR.
Thanks to his thrilling upset in the Daytona 500, the 20-year-old phenom is NASCAR’s newest star and one of the most popular athletes in the country this week.
That could have been David Ragan.
If not for one little slip-up, one glaring mistake, Ragan could be the driver taking the country by storm. He could be the new star basking in the spotlight of a whirlwind media tour, attracting invaluable exposure and reaping the benefits of his newfound fame.
Instead, the 25-year-old Ragan is left to explain one of the biggest gaffes of his career and wondering what might have been.
Or wondering, why me?
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Thanks to a push from Bayne, Ragan was leading the Daytona 500 with just two laps to go. With Bayne riding Ragan’s bumper, like he had done with numerous drivers all day long, the young duo shot up the middle of a three-wide pack to take the lead on lap 197 of the scheduled 200-lap race.
When a caution flag flew one lap later, setting up the first of two green-white-checkered restarts, Ragan was in the catbird seat and seemingly headed for his own monumental upset in NASCAR’s biggest race.
But on the restart, Ragan made a terrible mistake. Starting on the outside of Bayne, he darted down in front of him at the green flag to get another push from the driver who had helped him get to the front.
But Ragan made the move too soon, switching positions before he got to the start/finish line and drawing a black flag from NASCAR officials. The penalty cost Ragan the lead and, ultimately, the race. After being sent to the tail end of the lead lap, he finished 14th.
“To win these Cup races you can’t make any mistakes, and the mistake I made hurt us,” the dejected Ragan said.
Bayne, meanwhile, inherited the lead and held off Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards and a host of other drivers on another green-white-checkered restart to win the Daytona 500.
Had Ragan held onto the lead, he likely would have gotten the push he needed from Bayne and held on to win his first Sprint Cup race.
NASCAR still would have gotten a thrilling finish, a Cinderella story and a feel-good victory to jump-start the Sprint Cup season. Only it would have been Ragan instead of the upstart Bayne basking in the limelight.
No one would have been more deserving and no one needed it more.
Ragan is starting his fifth full season with Roush Fenway Racing and, for the most part, the first four have been disappointing, putting his job and his future in jeopardy.
He showed promise in his second Cup season, scoring six top-five and 14 top-10 finishes while finishing 13th in points, just missing the Chase for the Sprint Cup. But he has had just five more top-10s and no top-fives in the past two seasons, slumping to 27th and 24th in points.
Sponsor UPS is in the final year of its contract, and Ragan acknowledges he must step up his performance and win a race to remain with Roush. Scoring his first Cup win in NASCAR’s biggest race likely would have done the trick.
Instead, while Bayne got the biggest break of his career in just his second Sprint Cup race, Ragan can’t seem to buy a break. And the biggest irony is this: If Ragan continues to struggle and does indeed lose his ride at Roush, Bayne very well could be the driver to replace him.
Bayne is under contract with Roush and runs the full Nationwide Series schedule for the Roush organization. He is running a partial Cup schedule with Wood Brothers Racing, which is closely affiliated with Roush, as a way to gain valuable experience.
He gained a ton at Daytona. So did Ragan — little of it good.
The mistake was the kind of gaffe Ragan has made often in his brief career. He has run well enough to win at times, finishing fifth twice at Daytona, including in his first Daytona 500, and finishing third at Michigan International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.
But every time he is in position to win, something seems to go wrong — either a mistake or a bad break. Ragan knows he must eliminate such setbacks.
“I can run with these guys week in and week out,” Ragan said prior to the season. “When the tables are turned and something bad happens, their experience, they can probably make a little better decisions when they get a lap down or have a bad pit stop or have a flat tire.
“Sometimes I go blank and make a dumb decision. … I can win races. They’re better on the bad days. That’s what I’ve got to work on.”
The pressure is on Ragan to eliminate those mistakes and figure out how to capitalize when he is in position to win or produce good finishes.
“Although David has shown a lot of blue sky, we had hoped to have won a race by now,” team co-owner Jack Roush said. “His second year, he finished 13th in points on the Cup side. We haven’t been able to repeat that or regain that close proximity to the Chase group, and we need to reestablish that.
“I am confident that David can and very hopeful he will do what he needs to do to make all that carry forward as it needs to.”
Ragan will try to use the momentum from running up front at Daytona to produce some positive results the rest of the season. But first he must get over another bitter defeat.
“That’s a tough one to (let) get away,” he said. “But we’ll move on to Phoenix and the sooner we can win one, the sooner we can forget it.”