David Ragan led the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway for just four laps last spring. It was good enough for the win.
This year, it would be good enough to make the Chase.
As one of two restrictor-plate tracks on the Sprint Cup schedule, Talladega is the wild card, where the unexpected is always expected.
While Ragan has won just two races in 263 career Sprint Cup starts, both have been on restrictor-plate tracks — the summer race at Daytona in 2011 and last year at Talladega. Neither win made much of a dent in the standings for Ragan, whose career-best finish was 13th for Roush Fenway Racing in 2008.
But a win today in this year’s win-and-you’re-in Chase format would create the opportunity of a lifetime for an underdog like Ragan, who finished 28th in the standings the last two seasons and is 31st this year for the modestly financed Front Row Motorsports, a middle-of-the pack team.
“We are not consistent enough to win several races, click off five or six top-10s in a row, and we realize that,” said Ragan, who qualified a disappointing 41st for today’s race. “But what NASCAR has done has given us a chance to be in the Chase for the championship, and that would really change the course of Front Row Motorsports and what we’re trying to achieve as a team and personally as a driver.
“Hats go off to NASCAR for being bold and making that adjustment to our playoff system that expands the field to 16 teams. We’re certainly not going to be a threat to win the championship if we can get into the Chase, and whoever wins that race at Watkins Glen (road course) that can’t win any other races, they’re not going to be a threat to win the championship either.
“But you’re in the show and you never know what can happen, and you’ve got to start somewhere.”
Ragan, 28, fully expects a team like his or one of the other lower-budgeted teams to pull off an upset in at least one of the remaining 17 regular-season races and crash the Chase.
“Absolutely. You look at AJ Allmendinger, Casey Mears,” Ragan said of the drivers who qualified third and fourth for today’s race. “They’ve been running a lot better this year. Even look at the Petty cars, Marcos Ambrose and Aric Almirola they are not consistent enough to make the Chase in the old format, I think they would admit that, too.
“Look at our team, you look at Tommy Baldwin’s guys. Reed Sorenson had a shot to win the Daytona 500 this year. Yes, there will be one, maybe two cars, that will benefit from the new changes and will make the Chase, absolutely.”
Ragan’s best finish through nine races this season was 27th at the Auto Club 400 in California on March 23, so Talladega was a welcome sight.
“Obviously, our track record speaks a lot,” said Ragan who has seven top-10 and four top-five finishes in 14 career starts at Talladega. “This is a fun track, it’s a unique race. Daytona and Talladega are different races than what we experience all other race tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit.
“I wouldn’t enjoy racing this type of race 36 times a year, but four times a year — two at Daytona and two at Talladega — I really enjoy this type of racing. It fits my style. Just in the back of our minds we do think a little bit about if we can get that win you’re in the Chase. I guarantee every other team that has not got a win yet this year thinks about that, too.”