One wrong turn shapes David Ragan's career

Friday, Feb. 17, 2012

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - All he did was turn left.

Isn't that what NASCAR drivers are supposed to do?

David Ragan's first Sprint Cup Series victory in last season's July race at Daytona International Speedway secured his spot in Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout.

But if he had won last season's Daytona 500 it may well have changed his life. And the mistake that kept him doing so likely altered his NASCAR career.

As it was, Roush Fenway Racing was never able to secure a full-time sponsor for his No. 6 team, and Ragan failed to make last season's Chase for the Cup. The team folded at season's end.

Ragan, 26, spent much of the offseason searching for a ride. He eventually found one driving the No. 34 Ford at Front Row Motorsports, a relatively new organization based in Statesville and owned by fast food restaurant entrepreneur Bob Jenkins.

Ragan should have a chance to win tonight, or in next week's Daytona 500. His teammate at Front Row, David Gilliland, finished third in last year's 500.

It's the weeks after Daytona – at Phoenix and Las Vegas – where life will get more difficult, as he looks to help build Front Row into a weekly contender.

Yet, the question still haunts him – and may forever.

What if he won the Daytona 500?

How it happened

On Lap 197 of the scheduled 200-lap race last February, Ragan – with the help of fellow Ford driver Trevor Bayne – was in the lead.

The race had been dominated by two-car drafting tandems, and Ragan and Bayne proved a formidable combination.

A caution came out on Lap 198 for a five-car wreck on the backstretch. Ragan and Bayne were locked in first and second positions. If they could hold on through an incident-free restart, the win likely belonged to Ragan.

The race restarted on Lap 203, with Ragan on the outside and Bayne on the inside. Just before the start/finish line, Ragan dived to the bottom lane to line up once again for a two-car draft with Bayne.

That was a mistake.

NASCAR had repeatedly warned drivers not to change lanes before reaching the start/finish line. In his zeal to line up with his drafting partner, Ragan had done exactly that.

The black-flag was displayed for Ragan, and his chance at the Daytona 500 victory was instantly gone.

When a caution came out for another wreck, Bayne was locked into the leader position, and he held off Carl Edwards on the final restart to become the youngest winner of the NASCAR's biggest race.

After his improbable victory, Bayne was consumed in the celebration.

"I was so zoned in on what happened with me, I didn't get to reach out much to David," Bayne said. "I probably should have talked to him more because I really felt terrible for him. He was definitely in a situation where he could win. I can't believe how heart-wrenching that would be, to be leading the race and get black-flagged."

Ragan knows.

"All I was thinking about was, 'Where’s Trevor and what's he going to do?' " Ragan said. "I doubt that I even looked at the flag man or the start/finish line. "I had no idea where I was at on the race track, I was driving from my rear view mirror."

When a win isn't a win

In the days after 500, some of those closest to Ragan were unsure how to deal with what had happened.

Ragan and Joey Logano and their girlfriends spend a lot of time together away from the race track, but Logano said he never brought up the race.

"I can only imagine how tough that would be," Logano said. "That was the rule. Was it going to change the race if he dropped in (in front of Bayne)? It wasn't going to change anything.

"I'm sure he's wanted to forget about it. I didn't want to be the guy who went up and said, 'Well, that sucked, huh?' "

When the Cup series returned to Daytona in July, much of the pre-race attention remained focused on Bayne, who had suffered through a difficult illness (later diagnosed as Lyme Disease) in the months after his Daytona 500 win.

As the race drew to a close, though, an eerily familiar scenario played out.

The scheduled 160-lap race was extended by a late caution, and Ragan moved into the lead on Lap 163. On the next lap, a multi-car wreck brought out another caution, locking Ragan in the lead.

The race restarted again on Lap 169, and this time there were no mistakes. Ragan held off Roush teammate Matt Kenseth for his first career victory.

"Redemption!" blared many headlines in the media.

Was it?

"Your first win is supposed to be something that you just enjoy and celebrate and have a good time, but we were so focused on trying to capture what we lost in February that we probably didn't enjoy it as much as you normally would a first win," Ragan said.

"Ultimately, a win in the Daytona 500 is the only thing that can make up for what happened in 2011 in February."

Living with a mistake

Is winning a Daytona 500 the only thing that will finally erase the memory of the mistake that led to losing one?

Elliott Sadler knows.

In the 2009 Daytona 500, while driving for Richard Petty Motorsports, Sadler took the lead on Lap 123 and remained out front as bad weather threatened to cut the race short.

On what turned out to be the last green-flag lap of the race, Sadler made a costly mistake on the track that allowed Kenseth to pass him. Seconds later, a caution came out for rain.

The race was never restarted and Kenseth was declared the winner.

"Without one small mistake I made, I would have been a Daytona 500 champion for life, something nobody could ever take away from me," Sadler said. "I would be lying if I told you I didn't still think about it.

"I hate it so bad for David. He's such a good kid and he's very good at restrictor-plate racing. He's going to regret that and relive it the rest of his life."

Sadler paused, then added: "Unless or until he is able to get in that situation again."

Ragan believes that's possible.

"You can't have part failures, but if you have a car that's running 100 percent at the end of the race – which there are going to be 30 cars that will be in that situation – we'll have as good a shot to win the 500 this year as I did last year in the No. 6 car.

"Phoenix and (Las) Vegas are going to be a different story. But we could win the Daytona 500."

And everything would change.


More racing news, blogs, photos and more at