Ragan speeds into spotlight

By Nicole Auerbach
Globe Correspondent / July 13, 2011

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No matter what he does or where he goes these days, David Ragan can’t seem to avoid questions about Daytona International Speedway.

The track represents Ragan’s worst disappointment and greatest accomplishment.

In February, Ragan’s mistake with two laps remaining cost him the Daytona 500. He was penalized for failing to stay in his lane before reaching the start/finish line on a late restart, and Roush Fenway Racing teammate Trevor Bayne captured the win.

Nearly two weeks ago on the same track, Ragan took his first trip to Victory Lane in the Sprint Cup series after winning the Coke Zero 400. After five years and 163 starts, the win was sweet. Five months after the giant blunder in the 500, the victory tasted even sweeter.

“It was difficult the day or two after because you just feel like you gave up an opportunity to win the Daytona 500, the biggest race of the year,’’ Ragan said. “We raced just five or six days after. The schedule didn’t allow much time for grieving after the Daytona 500.’’

Ragan finished in the top 10 at four of the next 15 Cup events (two top 5s), including a runner-up finish at the May 29 Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte.

But the return to Daytona July 2 was going to be the real test for the 25-year-old Ragan, and mostly, it would be a mental challenge. Reporters repeatedly asked him about his mistake in the 500. If he didn’t do something about it, he’d likely be forever known as the driver who failed to take advantage of a golden opportunity to win the biggest race on the NASCAR calendar.

“If we can find the positives in [the Daytona 500], if we can see where we made a mistake, where to make our team stronger, that’ll only make us better,’’ Ragan said. “We definitely don’t want to run and hide from anything that we’ve done.

“I’m still not done hearing about the Daytona 500. That’s a good storyline. Everyone likes to bring stuff up like that. We can talk about it a little easier knowing that we’ve got a trophy sitting back home.’’

The first win came later than Ragan hoped, and he appreciated the support and patience of owner Jack Roush. Ragan first started driving full-time for Roush in 2007.

Prior to Ragan’s win, some speculated the relationship between Roush and Ragan was shaky. Ragan is signed through 2013, but his sponsor, UPS, hasn’t renewed its contract to keep Ragan in the No. 6 car. Ragan said he has tried to focus on racing instead of outside factors.

Winning certainly can change things. Ragan received a vote of confidence from Roush after his long-awaited triumph.

“David has arrived,’’ Roush said. “He’s a winner now. To finally have David in the win column is a really big thing for us.’’

The win helped improve Ragan’s chances to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, which includes the top 10 drivers in the point standings as well as two wild cards. The wild-card selections will go to the drivers ranked between Nos. 12 and 20 with the most Cup wins. Currently, Ragan is the only driver in that range with a victory.

Eight races remain before the Chase begins, including Sunday’s Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon. Ragan feels confident heading into the final two-month stretch of the season.

“Getting that win gives us something to fall back on,’’ he said. “Someone can make the Chase with one win but you’ve got to be 11th or 12th, maybe 13th, in points. That’s what this sport is all about rising up under pressure. We’re here, and it’s time for us to rise.’’

Ragan just missed the Chase in 2008 when he finished 13th in the point standings that year.

Ragan has learned from that experience and he knows he needs to be more aggressive in the final races. No more of that nice guy from Unadilla, Ga.

“I look at myself as a pretty laid-back, respectful driver,’’ Ragan said. “If someone gives me a spot and they’re faster, I may give a spot back later in return in the race. I think some instances like that have to go away. You go to a racetrack and someone is catching you, typically you let them by if it’s early in the race. I don’t think we can afford to do that anymore.’’

Especially not in Loudon.

There really isn’t much room for error at NHMS, considering Ragan’s history with the track. In eight races, he never has finished better than 15th, and he suffered crashes in 2008 and ’09 (finishing 40th and 38th, respectively).

“Statistics-wise we’re horrible, maybe one of our worst tracks,’’ Ragan said. “But the good thing is, our racecars are very fast. I feel like we’re on a roll. Sometimes good momentum is very contagious. That seems to just kind of roll, just like bad momentum is contagious.’’

Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer has analyzed Ragan’s car and how to maximize its speed at NHMS, specifically. That’s just another piece of Ragan’s growing confidence.

He also hopes to qualify strong and see if he can ride his momentum to victory.

“That makes us look at this particular weekend and say, ‘This can be a game-changer,’ ’’ Ragan said. “If we can get through this weekend and succeed, we’ve got a great shot.’’