DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – David Ragan could have won the Daytona 500 if not for a late-race gaffe that cost him what would have been a life-changing victory.
So as he found himself out front for the final two laps of Saturday night’s return race at Daytona International Speedway, nobody would have been surprised if he cracked under the pressure. But with Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth locked onto his bumper and giving him sound advice, Ragan cruised to his first career Sprint Cup win in 163 starts.
“Everybody kept talking about (the Daytona 500), and I just tried to take the positive from it and move on,” Ragan said in Victory Lane. “I can’t thank my spotter and my crew chief and my team enough. They really humbled me and kept me focused. Matt pushed me to the finish line.”
It was just less than five months ago that Ragan made the biggest mistake of his young career.
He was the leader on a late restart of the season-opening Daytona 500 when he was penalized for passing too early. Black-flagged for the mistake, he slammed his steering wheel three times with his fist, and after finishing 14th, said “It’ll take us a long time to forget this one. The sooner we can win one, the sooner we can forget it.”
Although he’s run better this season, his fifth full season in the Sprint Cup Series, he’d yet to come all that close to a win.
That changed in this return trip to Daytona as the 25-year-old second-generation NASCAR driver found himself leading the pack for the final two laps, but worried he’d blow it again.
He didn’t, thanks in large part to Kenseth, who was committed to helping his teammate to the finish. And he didn’t need a reminder to stay in his lane on the restart – the mistake that cost him the Daytona 500.
With the win, Ragan could be in contention for a berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Ragan jumped to 17th in the standings, and two spots in the Chase will go to the winningest drivers ranked between 11 and 20.
And it could save the relationship with sponsor UPS, which is in the final year of its contract with RFR. The team learned this week that Crown Royal will not return as primary sponsor for Kenseth, and so far the organization has only one of its four primary sponsors resigned for 2012.
“David has a great future ahead of him and we look forward to many more trips to victory lane with him,” Ron Rogowski, UPS vice president of sponsorship and events, said in a statement immediately after the race.
Kenseth finished second to give RFR a 1-2 sweep for Ford.
Joey Logano, who won his first Daytona race Friday night with a Nationwide Series victory, finished third in a Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. Kasey Kahne was fourth in a Toyota for Red Bull Racing and Kyle Busch was fifth for JGR.
Jeff Gordon made a terrific late-race save to avoid a race-ending wreck and finished sixth in a Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports.The race was, as expected, more of the two-car tandem style that has taken over at Daytona and Talladega, the two restrictor-plate tracks in NASCAR. It was fairly tame until the final 20 or so laps, when the racing got dicey.
It got downright chaotic with just over two scheduled laps remaining, when Gordon needed a beautiful save to prevent a massive accident. That set up the first attempt at overtime, which ended with a 15-car accident triggered when Mark Martin and Logano went for the same piece of track space.
Then came the second overtime, which ended with Ragan crossing the finish line first as a second 15-car accident broke out in the final turn.