David Ragan's future in the 6 tenuous
CONCORD, N.C. -- Few if any drivers in the Sprint Cup Series needed a solid finish Sunday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway more than David Ragan.
He got it, finishing second to Kevin Harvick as most of the top contenders ran out of fuel in the closing laps.
But will it be enough to save his job? Only time will tell.
Although Ragan has a few years left on his contract with Roush Fenway Racing, it still hasn't been decided whether he will return to the No. 6 Ford next season.
Much depends on sponsorship, and UPS isn't committed to reupping its deal to partner with a driver who has finished 27th and 24th in points the past two seasons and has yet to visit Victory Lane.
That Ragan has several young drivers biting at the bit behind him doesn't simplify things. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished 11th in his Cup debut for the Wood Brothers. Trevor Bayne, the driver Stenhouse replaced, is the reigning Daytona 500 champion.
So if Ragan hopes to keep his ride, he needs more finishes like the one he got in the Coca-Cola 600.
"That's a finish that we deserved, but we just went about doing it the hard way," Ragan said after moving up three spots to 18th in points.
Maybe this is a sign that things are turning around for Ragan. He's had fast cars all season, leading the Daytona 500 going into the final restart until he jumped lanes to draw a penalty from NASCAR.
Instead of being pushed to the victory by Bayne, Ragan finished 14th and watched Bayne gain all the exposure he desperately needed.
That's kind of the way Ragan's season has gone. He has started 14th or better in nine of 12 races. He's finished 14th or better only five times.
"That's just how competitive the Sprint Cup Series is today," Ragan said of his finish on Sunday. "We can race for 600 miles and there's still 15 cars that have a shot to win it at the end."
But Roush and UPS want a driver with more than a shot to win. They want a driver who is producing wins.
That's just how competitive the Sprint Cup Series is today. We can race for 600 miles and there's still 15 cars that have a shot to win it at the end” -- David Ragan on finishing second in the Coca-Cola 600
Ironically, Ragan was in similar shoes as Stenhouse and Bayne in 2008. He had a career-best 14 top-10s and six top-5s en route to finishing 13th in points. That was enough to convince UPS to move from David Reutimann's team at Michael Waltrip Racing to RFR.
Said team owner Jack Roush at the announcement in 2008, "David Ragan will be an outstanding representative for them on and off the track, and with the progress David has made this season I have no doubt he will be in Victory Lane in 2009."
Instead, Ragan had only two top-10s -- sixth in the Daytona 500 and seventh at California -- in 2009 and led only four laps. He finished 27th in points and improved little on that the following year with three top-10s and a 24th-place showing in the standings.
He's put RFR in the position of looking at options for 2012. That there is an uncertainty about Bayne's future as he recovers from an undisclosed illness might make him less of an option, but RFR officials are optimistic that Bayne will be able to finish the season beginning with this weekend's Nationwide Series race at Chicagoland.
Stenhouse's stock is high, too. He won the recent Nationwide Series race at Iowa to end the year-long reign of Cup drivers and is only one point out of first place behind Elliott Sadler in the standings.
His 11th in Sunday's Cup marathon after qualifying ninth impressed many.
"It was everything I thought it was gonna be," Stenhouse said.
So as you can see, Ragan needed Sunday's strong finish to keep alive any hope of keeping his seat in the No. 6.
But it's still too close to call.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.