David Ragan finally shrugged off the "best NASCAR driver without a Sprint Cup victory" tag when he won last weekend in Daytona. The win was five seasons and 163 starts in the making, and one that many expected sooner when Ragan earned a full-time ride in the No. 6 car for Roush Fenway Racing in 2007 at age 21. Ragan was dubbed one of the sport's "young guns" at the time. But during Ragan's first four years, he largely toiled in the middle of the pack as teammates Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle competed for Cup titles. Yet there was no raucous celebration in Victory Lane after Kenseth pushed Ragan across the finish line in the muggy Florida heat last weekend. No overwhelming sense of relief. All that can wait for the winter. If anything, Ragan's breakthrough has only turned the pressure up a notch or three.
"We have to make that win count for something," he said.
Namely, a spot in NASCAR's Chase for the Championship this fall.
The 25-year-old knows it's time, perhaps past time, for him to do more than play out the string this fall. His victory vaulted him into one of the two wild-card spots available for the 12-driver Chase, with nine races to go before the cutoff.
"I think it's because everyone's so equal, competition is so tight," said Kyle Busch, who starts from the pole tonight in the inaugural Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway. "Everybody has a really good sense of this car right now."
Including Ragan, who will try to make it two straight tonight in an event — much like Ragan's triumph — that has been a long time coming.
The 1.5-mile oval opened to rave reviews over a decade ago and has hosted NASCAR truck and Nationwide series races for years, but it took a protracted legal battle and the track's sale to Speedway Motorsports Inc. before it found a date on the Cup schedule.
A capacity crowd of about 120,000 is expected, with Speedway Motorsports chairman Bruton Smith promising to put on the biggest sporting event the Bluegrass State has seen, the Kentucky Derby included.
"We will outdraw (everything) this week, this horsey race … included," Smith said.
And if he can conquer the new Cup track tonight, Ragan could not time a second win better, a few months before shipping giant UPS's contract as the primary sponsor on his car is up.
The company sent out a statement this week praising Ragan for his hard work, and he's optimistic the company will deliver for him next year. He expects a decision to be made over the next six weeks.
"Certainly winning helps, and running well helps, and getting TV time and sitting on poles all helps," Ragan said. "That is what I can control. … Hopefully I can uphold my end of the deal and keep that Ford up front."