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Ragan knows the time to win is now

6/28/2011 - NASCAR

SONOMA, Calif. -- David Ragan had just arrived home in North Carolina a few hours after the Daytona 500, still shaken from blowing the biggest race of the season -- of his career -- with a restart penalty that he'd never seen called before.

Then he turned on the DVR to watch a replay of his monumental mistake to see what he might have done differently, to see what he had done, period.

It wasn't there.

"It didn't record the end of the race because it went overtime with so many cautions," Ragan recalled this past weekend at Infineon Raceway. "It stopped right at that last caution. That probably unraveled me more that I couldn't watch it."

Since then, Ragan has seen the replay seemingly a thousand times, taking solace only in that NASCAR has called the penalty in subsequent races. Unfortunately, he can't rewind and do it all over again.

If he could, he would not switch lanes before the start-finish line, which forced the governing body to send him to the back of the field. If he could, he would have waited a few more seconds to move in front of eventual winner Trevor Bayne -- the Roush teammate who helped get Ragan to the front -- and let Bayne push him to the victory.

If, if, if …

If Ragan had won that race, his life would be so much different now. Primary sponsor UPS likely would have already committed to him and Roush Fenway Racing beyond this season. The win, instead of the 14th-place finish he got, would have had him in position for one of the two wild-card spots for the Chase.

His future for the next year or so would be secure.

Instead, as Ragan heads back to Daytona for Saturday's Independence Day weekend race, his career is in limbo.

"Yeah, I probably think about it at least once a week," Ragan said as he leaned against a counter in the back of his No. 6 hauler. "You think about what could have been different if you had that win. You think about that Chase and wild-card spot … man, if we had that win, there'd be a lot less pressure."

Ragan isn't the only person who thinks about the what-ifs. Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer certainly does.

"Realistically, if we win that race, it puts us in position with sponsorship renewal; David's career, my career and everybody on this team is in a little better place," he said.

Team owner Jack Roush thinks about it.

"David has certainly done everything else that he needs to do to show everybody watching he deserves to be here," he said. "He's only a race away from having a really great season. I just hope we're able to get enough people convinced of that to keep his program going."

History is filled with what-if scenarios. If Paul Revere hadn't gone for his midnight ride, we might all be speaking with a British accent. If Alexander Graham Bell hadn't invented the phone, maybe we'd be delivering Pony Express messages and not e-mails.

If … well, you get the picture.

One moment in time can be a life-changing experience.

"I"ve thought about that a little," Ragan said. "That'll get you depressed quick. There is no need to dwell on things like that. You can't go back and change things that happened in the past.

"About the time I start to really get into it, I have to adjust my mindset and say that's not helping us get to where we want to be. So I need to think about stuff we can change in the future."

Nothing would help Ragan's future more than a win. He doesn't have one in 162 career Sprint Cup starts. No matter how good you are for the sponsor off the track, no matter how nice you are, that won't cut it.

"Everyone talks about things off the track, good finishes, being consistent and having a good personality, but it's all about winning," Ragan said. "Kyle Busch, he's gotten a lot more PR and press this year than anybody. A lot of it may be bad, but bottom line, he's winning and he's getting it.

"You can say whatever you want; you can be a bad person, a good person, ugly or pretty. But if you're winning … everyone likes a winner."

There's not much not to like about Ragan. He's as nice and personable as they come in the garage.

Roush likes Ragan a lot. The owner believes in Ragan, thinking he would be the next great driver at RFR after finishing 13th in points in 2008.

But in this world in which sponsors determine the fate of driver contracts, liking and believing in don't matter. You have to produce, and that means finding a way to Victory Lane.

"David has been in this business long enough that he needs to be winning races and finish consistently in the top-5," Roush said. "I hope he can pull it off and they can win a race and we can get the support we need for him to continue."

If not, Roush will be in a position he would prefer not to be. He might have to pull the 25-year-old Ragan from the No. 6 and go with the 20-year-old Bayne, whose surprise win in the 500 made him an overnight household name. Or he may have to go with Nationwide Series driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who is third in the Nationwide standings this season, including a win.

There also has been speculation that RFR may have to move the UPS sponsorship to points leader Carl Edwards to have enough money to re-sign him.

It's not a position Roush wants, or would be in, if Ragan had won the 500.

David Ragan As it happened on that Sunday, you really couldn't believe it was happening. You don't really think about you just lost a huge opportunity to win the Daytona 500 until that next day or two. It was real hard to get over it.

-- David Ragan

"The problem of making the business work is uniquely the owner's, and it's pretty lonely," Roush said.

Nobody was lonelier after the 500 than Ragan. While Bayne was being showered in attention and preparing for a week of national exposure that sponsors live for, Ragan stood in the back of the garage between two toolboxes trying to comprehend what he'd let slip away.

"As it happened on that Sunday, you really couldn't believe it was happening," said Ragan, who has finished 27th and 24th in the standings the past two years to put his career more in jeopardy. "You don't really think about you just lost a huge opportunity to win the Daytona 500 until that next day or two.

"It was real hard to get over it."

It was just as hard for Ragan to watch Bayne go from the ESPN studios in Bristol, Conn., to Los Angeles for an appearance on "Lopez Tonight."

"If I got caught up in all the cool things that were going on, I would be depressed," Ragan said. "I'm just trying to focus on all the good things that are happening, and hopefully we'll have something good to cheer about next week."

Ragan has been close to having several good things happen. He finished fourth at Richmond and a career-best second in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

He already has four top-10s, one more than he had all of last season. He also has eight finishes of 20th or worse, including a 29th on Sunday in Sonoma. That has him 20th in points, not what you want to take to a major sponsor looking to commit about $15 million a year.

"The next six weeks are very crucial," Ragan said. "If we can have some good finishes, good things will happen. If we fall off the ship and drown, it could be bad."

If Ragan had won the Daytona 500, he might not be talking in "ifs." He wouldn't be thinking about how one restart has impacted his entire career when he drives through the Daytona tunnel on Thursday.

"It was one of those deals where I hate to learn these tough deals like that," Ragan said. "It would have been much easier to watch somebody else learn that lesson."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.