CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Credit David Ragan for being a good sport.
When Tony Stewart ridiculed the Nextel Cup rookie last October by calling him a "a dart without feathers," Ragan didn't run away in embarrassment. He instead bid $5,750 to win a pre-race ride with Stewart that guaranteed him a little face time with the two-time series champion.
"When I first heard that, I think my dad called me and I said, â€˜Man, that's pretty cool, at least Tony Stewart knows who David Ragan is. Six months ago I was a kid wanting his autograph. Now he knows who I am,'" Ragan said.
"It didn't bother me at all. Things like that I think just make you a tougher guy."
Ragan, the son of former Cup driver Ken Ragan, gets a chance to prove it this weekend when he returns to Martinsville Speedway, site of his debacle last year.
Making his second career Cup start - and the first one ended after 47 laps and a second-to-last place finish - Ragan wrecked his way around Martinsville. His struggles infuriated both Stewart and Ken Schrader, who angrily threw a piece of debris at Ragan after their three-car accident.
It led NASCAR to deny the 21-year-old clearance to race the next week at Atlanta, and car owner Jack Roush had to withdraw the entry.
But Ragan, who hails from Georgia, went to Atlanta anyway and jumped into a charity auction that was giving away pre-race rides with the drivers.
"It just worked out perfect where I bid on this ride and won it," he said. "I did tell Tony that he should match whatever I spent, and I think he did."
Ragan hopes that as this season wears on, he can shed the stereotypes he carried out of Martinsville.
"It was a rough race last year, a few mistakes, a long day," Ragan said. "Time will help everything. The only true testament will be to look back six months from now and see where we're at."
He had a rough go last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, when he spun out four different times in NASCAR's first Car of Tomorrow race. But he's still 22nd in the points, ahead of 14 other drivers who have raced in all five events this season.
And he opened the year in his new Roush ride with a surprising fifth-place finish in the Daytona 500, and has been running at the end of each race this season.
It's all happening this year under an enormous spotlight on Ragan, who replaced Mark Martin in Roush's flagship No. 6 Ford after 19 successful seasons. And he's also competing for rookie of the year against Juan Pablo Montoya, an Indianapolis 500 champion and former Formula One star who is currently tied with Ragan in the standings.
"Certainly Jeff Gordon could get in the No. 6 Ford Fusion and it would be tough to fill Mark Martin's shoes," Ragan said. "Mark is a guy that's kind of irreplaceable. But I don't mind being the guy that six, 10, 15 races into the year, everyone's been talking about Montoya, been talking about Mark, you look up in the standings, hopefully you'll see (me) there in the top 15 or top 20 and tied with Montoya for rookie of the year."
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