When David Ragan made his transition into the big leagues of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, there were high hopes and even higher expectations. Over the past five seasons however, Ragan has struggled to live up to those expectations.
The young driver had a solid season in 2008, scoring six top-fives and 14 top-10s to finish 13th in the final season standings, but the following two seasons failed to produce consistent performances. Questions began to arise about whether UPS would return as the team’s sponsor, as well as Ragan’s future with Roush Fenway Racing.
Yet at the outset of the 2011 season, Ragan had a bounce in his step and a fresh outlook on his future. Paired with crew chief Drew Blickensderfer, Ragan showed up in Daytona ready to prove he had what it takes to win at the biggest level. And he almost did just that.
The key word there is almost. In the closing laps of the Daytona 500, Ragan moved down a lane to pick up drafting partner and Ford teammate Trevor Bayne. Instead of sitting in the catbird seat, Ragan was black flagged by NASCAR for changing lanes prior to the start-finish line. While Bayne went on the score the win, Ragan ended the day in 14th.
From then on, Ragan continued to be among the fastest cars at the track week-in and week-out, yet the No. 6 team was never able to capitalize on their success in practice and in qualifying.
At Martinsville Speedway in April, Ragan said the team simply needed to get better at being “more perfect” in their jobs throughout the weekend. While the team was fast in practices and qualifying, they seemed to make mistakes on race day that cost them the solid finishes they felt they deserved.
Blickensderfer reiterated his driver’s thoughts that day in Martinsville, saying the team was simply building into a top-10 contender both at the track and in the shop. Working more cohesively as a team, the improved communication and mutual respect on the No. 6 car has perhaps been the biggest component to its recent success.
“I don't know David's whole racing history, but he didn't have a lot of experience, especially driving big, heavy cars,” teammate Matt Kenseth said. “He's had a couple of different crew chiefs and car chiefs and crews and groups until they found a good mix that worked really well with him. I don't know why it is like that, but you've got to get that right mix of people together. Get all them people working right together. It seems like he's got that right now.”
Another factor Blickensderfer pointed to was Ragan’s improved confidence inside a fast race car. Knowing how close he came to victory in February’s Daytona 500, Ragan knew he had a solid shot at Saturday night’s race.
“That's probably the first time that I felt we've got a car that's fast enough that we can win this thing if we make the right decision throughout the race,” he said.
Realizing he needed a trustworthy partner, Ragan and his No. 6 team “made a pact” with teammate Matt Kenseth to work together throughout the entire race.
“I didn't know if that was the right decision or not, but bottom line, our car was fast,” Ragan said. “That's what wins these races. You've got to have luck, you've got to have pit stops and all that stuff goes into effect.”
In a race of two-car chance, Ragan and Blickensderfer understood it would take solid communication, a trustworthy partner and no mistakes to score the win.
While the win alone is a feat in and of itself, Saturday night’s victory was a boost in Ragan’s racing resume. After facing doubts, rumors and disappointment, Ragan was able to quell the critics and show what team owner Jack Roush and the people at UPS saw all along.
Following the victory, UPS vice president, sponsorships & events Ron Rogowski issued the following statement:
“We’re very proud to have David Ragan as UPS Racing’s brand ambassador and are excited to congratulate him on his first win. David has a great future ahead of him and we look forward to many more trips to victory lane with him.”
Negotiations between RFR and UPS are underway to continue sponsorship of the No. 6 team, but Roush said they “don’t have assurance that that’s going to be the case.” Yet Roush hopes Ragan’s primetime Fourth of July win shows the company his young driver has what it takes to succeed.
“David has arrived at the upper echelon,” he said. “He's a winner now. And he's given a win to UPS, and hopefully they'll consider that as they think about the value of the program and what it means to all their employees and what it means to their customers to have this association.”
Ragan was not the only to one to earn a bit of redemption with Saturday night’s win. For Blickensderfer, it was a huge boost in confidence to the former Daytona 500 winning crew chief. After leading Kenseth to back-to-back wins in the 2009 Daytona 500 win and the following weekend at Auto Club Speedway, Blickensderfer struggled to find victory lane.
“I felt like I failed quite a bit,” he said. “Yeah, I counted every one of (the losses). And to come back and get a second opportunity, it's something that Jack told me from day one that I'd be up here when the time was right again. It's been really nice.”
That second opportunity came when Blickensderfer climbed back atop a Sprint Cup Series pit box late in the season last year. After calling the shots in the Nationwide Series for Roush Fenway, Blickensderfer began working as the crew chief on the No. 6 team for the final 10 races of 2010.
“Coming over here, ten races to go in the season last year, I felt like we gained some momentum,” he said. “Then working this year with David and the guys, I think our mindset (has) gotten better throughout the year. We felt like we were a top 20 team to start the year, and a top 15, and 10, and now we sit here as the winner. I think that momentum keeps building. Definitely feel a little redemption."