There were more than 14,000 competitive miles last year in the Sprint Cup Series season, but David Ragan’s season, if not his entire racing career, was defined by a mere 50 yards.
In a blink, Ragan changed lanes during a late-race re-start at the season-opening Daytona 500. Now it might take him years to undo the results.
A black flag not only sent Ragan back to a 14th-place finish, it started a chain-reaction that didn’t end until he was signed by Front Row Motorsports in January.
What should have been the biggest day in his young career instead became a career-altering moment that continues to haunt him.
“I think about that every day,” he said. “I don’t dwell on it. It doesn’t make me sad or unhappy, but at some point through every day of my life, I think about that Daytona 500 until probably after this Daytona 500 I might not think about it as much.”
NASCAR told drivers before the race they couldn’t improve their positions during re-starts. As the leader, however, Ragan didn’t know that meant he couldn’t move from the outside lane to the bottom before they crossed the finish line to start a two-lap overtime sprint to the checkered flag. After all, how can a race leader improve his position?
He was black-flagged and that opened the door for Trevor Bayne to become the surprising winner.
In the months that followed, Ragan never completely shook the disappointment. Car owner Jack Roush didn’t forget either by moving Ragan’s UPS sponsorship over to Carl Edwards’ car for the upcoming season. That left the 26 year-old driver without a ride.
But not without hope.
Although Ragan was considered a finalist for the No. 22 Dodge at Penske Racing, as well as the No. 51 Chevrolet at Phoenix Racing, the No. 43 Ford at Richard Petty Motorsports and the No. 88 Chevrolet for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Nationwide Series team, he wound up at a race team that fielded two full-time cars a year ago and finished with only one top-five finish.
Instead of bemoaning the situation, Ragan wants to help Front Row evolve into a contender.
“It was definitely an adjustment for sure,” Ragan said as looked ahead to the Feb. 18 Budweiser Shootout exhibition race at Daytona International Speedway, as well as the Daytona 500 eight days later.
Even as Ragan focuses more on the future than the past, he can’t help but wonder what could have happened if he had driven those 50 yards any differently.
He is eager to find redemption at Daytona. He believes his Ford is good enough to run up front – and win.