TALLADEGA, Ala. — It took a pair of Davids – Ragan and Gilliland – to take down the rest of stock car’s giants Sunday.
Ragan and Gilliland started eighth and 11th, respectively, in a two-lap overtime shootout at the end of the Aaron’s 499. The teammates from under-funded and unheralded Front Row Motorsports worked together in a nose-to-tail tandem to carve one of the most-memorable final laps in Talladega Superspeedway history.
They snuck their Fords through the darkness and rain to catch everyone else off guard. They stormed past five-time champion Jimmie Johnson and former champion Matt Kenseth. They got by Carl Edwards and pulled away to a stunning finish that was very popular throughout the entire garage area.
“If it wasn’t for that final push from David Gilliland, I don’t know what to say,” Ragan said. “This is a true David versus Goliath moment here.”
Ragan was 40 yards ahead of Gilliland at the finish line.
Their last-lap charge was so unexpected and so impressive, none of the frontrunners even saw it coming.
“When they came up I said, ‘Who is that?’ They were coming,” Edwards said. “As frustrated as I am for the loss, I’m really happy for these guys.”
Gilliland was committed to his teammate to the finish.
“What a great day for Front Row,” Gilliland said. “I know he would have done the same to me. I was locked to his bumper and I wasn’t going to let go.”
The start of the race was pushed up by 13 minutes to give NASCAR a better chance to work around expected delays for rain. There was a 3-hour, 36-minute red flag period for a pair of storms – the second that included lightning and hail – but the race finally resumed with 63 laps to go.
Kenseth dominated before the rain delay and after by leading a total of 142 of 192 laps. He was out front to start the two laps of overtime, but was shuffled back to an eighth-place finish.
Ragan’s only other victory came in 2011 at Daytona International Speedway in July. After that season, he lost his ride at Roush Fenway Racing and finally signed to drive for Bob Jenkins’ Front Row Motorsports.
“We’re a small team,” Ragan said. “We build our own chassis, our own bodies. Man this is big. I couldn’t be more proud to play my own role.”
Ragan and Gilliland combined to give Jenkins just his third and fourth top-five finishes in 406 starts dating back to the 2005 season.
“It’s been my dream since I got to Front Row was to get Bob Jenkins to Victory Lane,” Gilliland said. “It’s a huge day for anyone to get a first and second, but it’s really big for our little team Front Row Motorsports.”
Michael Waltrip finished fourth, followed by Johnson in fifth, Regan Smith in sixth, Martin Truex Jr. in seventh, Kenseth in eighth and Scott Speed in ninth.
Leading up to the delay, everyone in the lead pack knew rain was imminent but nobody wanted to make their move too quickly since cars at the back could team up in groups of two or three and make a charge.
Kenseth led for a race-best 101 laps, but the closer the storms approached, the more everyone else ganged up on him. Stenhouse led a four-car group of Fords that included Edwards, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski on a charge that took them from out of the top 10 to the lead in a span of four laps. Stenhouse was out front when Edwards saw the first raindrop. Edwards made a pass and was two inches ahead when the yellow flag waved.
Edwards’ hopes of winning a rain-shortened race ended with NASCAR’s persistence to complete all 500 miles.
Once the race resumed, it didn’t take Kenseth long to get back up front. He re-took the lead five laps after the restart and he stayed there until a final round of green-flag pit stops. He was back to 15th after the stops, but he was back up to second behind Johnson when Michael McDowell brought out a caution after bouncing off the backstretch wall with 14 laps to go.
Stenhouse triggered an 11-car crash with five laps remaining when he tried to press between J.J. Yeley’s car and the outside wall. Kurt Busch’s car flipped once and landed on Newman’s roof. Danica Patrick, Clint Bowyer, Gordon, Stremme, McMurray, Ambrose, Newman and Bobby Labonte also were involved.
It was so dark NASCAR said they would attempt just one green-white-checkered restart. Ragan started eighth and immediately got a big push from Gilliland.
“It’s cool to see the underdogs,” Kenseth said. “We got real wide running into (Turn) 1 and I didn’t watch the runs by the Davids.”
As expected, Denny Hamlin started the race and rode near the back of the pack until the first caution. Brian Vickers replaced him on the 24th lap during a minute-long swap on pit road without dropping the No. 11 Toyota off the lead lap.
Vickers didn’t last long. He was part of a 16-car pileup heading into the first turn just 18 laps after taking over for Hamlin. The accident started when Kyle Busch turned Kasey Kahne’s car into the outside wall.
Cars driven by Jeff Gordon, Casey Mears, Jeff Burton, Greg Biffle, Tony Stewart, David Stremme, Marcos Ambrose, Jamie McMurray, Kurt Busch, David Gilliland, Speed, Martin Truex Jr., Vickers and David Reutimann also were involved.
“I hate I caused a heck of a melee out there,” Busch said.