Finally, David Ragan gets redemption
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Remember David Ragan, the man who should have won the Daytona 500, the guy who made a mistake at the end he'll remember the rest of his life?
Yeah, that guy. He didn't make any mistakes Saturday night. And once again, he had a race he'll never forget, this time for all the right reasons.
Ragan survived all the carnage at the end of the Coke Zero 400 and earned his redemption moment, going to Victory Lane at the place that haunted him for the past five months.
He might have won NASCAR's biggest event that day in February if not for changing lanes too soon on a restart at the end, bringing a penalty from NASCAR.
The glorious moment of a first-time winner in the Daytona 500 went to Trevor Bayne instead of Ragan.
"The Daytona 500 [victory] sure would have been nice," Ragan said. "But this is one of the bigger races of the year, too. It eases the pain from not having that Daytona 500 ring."
The outcomes couldn't be a bigger change for two young drivers. Bayne finished 41st Saturday, crashing on the fifth lap when Brad Keselowski pushed him in the wrong spot.
"This is the opposite of what we wanted," Bayne said. "I didn't have a plan on who to work with at the start. I was looking for a partner when the 2 car [Keselowski] got to us. I don't know what happened there. It's disappointing."
Not near the disappointment Ragan had in February, but Ragan said he never lost his confidence.
"I knew we could do it all along," he said. "This has been one of my best tracks. We knew coming back here we'd have a chance to win. I feel we should have done this a hundred races ago."
It took 163 starts for Ragan to get that first victory, so redemption really isn't the biggest thing for him. It's salvation.
The victory could help him keep his job in the No. 6 Ford at Roush Fenway Racing, something that's been very much in doubt.
"You could kind of see this coming for him," said teammate Matt Kenseth, the man who paired up with Ragan all night and pushed him to the victory on the second green-white-checkered restart. "I've seen David mature a lot and learn a lot.
"When he came to Cup he didn't have much experience. And stepping in the 6 car after Mark Martin left wasn't the easiest job in the world."
Joey Logano, who finished third Saturday, knows how it feels to replace a Cup star, stepping into the No. 20 Toyota when Tony Stewart started his own team. So Logano was happy for Ragan, a longtime friend and rival.
"We grew up together," Logano said. "We've raced against each other since we were 9 years old. David deserves this. I can only imagine how tough [the Daytona 500] was for him. He definitely redeemed himself tonight."
One big night won't change everything for Ragan. The contract is up with primary sponsor UPS, but team owner Jack Roush thinks this victory might keep them around.
"We're hopeful UPS will carry on its sponsorship with the 6 car," Roush said. "David has arrived. He's a winner now, and hopefully they will consider that."
The Daytona 500 [victory] sure would have been nice. But this is one of the bigger races of the year, too. It eases the pain from not having that Daytona 500 ring.” -- David Ragan
And now Ragan won't have to hear any more talk about changing lanes before the restart with the Daytona 500 win in his grasp.
"Everybody kept talking about it,'' Ragan said. "But I tried to just zero in on the positives from it and move on. We've been so close so many times and finally we're here."
He's here all right. If the Chase started today, Ragan would be in. Ragan is 17th in the standings, but his victory would earn him one of the two wild-card spots in the playoff.
Teammate Carl Edwards won't need a wild-card spot, but he's no longer the points leader. Edwards finished 37th after an early wreck and fell to second in the standings, five points behind Kevin Harvick.
Edwards' crush panel was damaged in the accident, which brought exhaust fumes into the driver compartment. Edwards doesn't use an air box, which could have helped him.
Things were pretty calm on the track after the early wrecks by Bayne and Edwards, but as usual, the end was a crashing mess.
Jeff Gordon spun in a cluster of cars with two laps to go in regulation. The big wreck came on the first green-white-checkered, involving 13 cars. And two separate wrecks happened behind Ragan and the leaders on the last lap on the second GWC.
Pairs racing or pack racing, it's crazy at the end. But in the tandem style, lots of things are happening up front.
The race had an event record of 57 lead changes and a track record of 25 leaders. February's Daytona 500, an event with 40 more laps, had 22 lead changes.
After all that, Ragan found himself in the same spot as he was in the Daytona 500, leading at the end with a chance to win.
His thoughts returned to that day. He was in the outside line in the 500, slipping down inside of Bayne before they reached the start-finish line.
Ragan took the inside line this time, but it wasn't because of what happened at Daytona.
"Matt was third and I knew he would push me all the way to the end," Ragan said.
But seconds before the last restart, Ragan couldn't help but remember that fateful moment five months ago.
"I was listening to Matt's radio," Ragan said. "His spotter mentioned it [staying in line]. I said, 'You don't have to tell me. That's one thing I don't have to be reminded of.'"
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at email@example.com.