David Ragan celebrates in Victory Lane after winning Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway in Talladega, Ala. (AP Photo)
So much for the old adage that nice guys finish last.
After a seven-hour ordeal masquerading as a stock car race, there was David Ragan standing in Victory Lane Sunday in Talladega. As longtime NASCAR writer Monte Dutton so eloquently put it, the nicest guy in NASCAR had just won the sport’s meanest race.
Ragan’s career has been anything but easy. He was green as grass when Jack Roush put him in the iconic No. 6 Ford, a ride he inherited from the legendary Mark Martin, during his rookie campaign in 2007. From the moment he climbed into the car, Ragan was perceived as the odd man out at Roush Fenway Racing, which was fielding a five-car fleet with a NASCAR-mandated deadline looming that required Roush to cut his fleet down to four cars.
As Ragan struggled to adjust to life in the Sprint Cup Series, he spent most of his tenure at RFR fielding questions about his job security. In spite of that, he remained friendly and patient as he slogged through the same line of questioning week after week.
Ragan wound up making the cut (Jamie McMurray was cut loose following the 2009 season), but the relief was short-lived — Roush eliminated the No. 6 team following the 2011 season and Ragan was out looking for a job.
Before Ragan left RFR, he managed to score his first Cup victory in Daytona in the summer of 2011. And on Sunday, he won another restrictor-plate race, giving Bob Jenkins, the owner of Front Row Motorsports, his first victory as a car owner.
All in all, it was the sort of feel-good story NASCAR will point to in marketing campaigns for years to come. “You see? Anything can happen! Anyone can be a winner,” NASCAR will shout in its best carnival barker voice.
Such is life in the fairytale land of restrictor-plate racing, a place where the deck is shuffled and reshuffled so many times that you never know what card will turn up at the end of the day. During four races a year, restrictor plates even the playing field and create the illusion of equality in a sport where engineering and money determine the winners and losers the other 32 weeks of the year.
For a majority of the season, NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series is like no-limit Texas Hold’em poker. Luck is a factor, but the skill of the players ultimately determines who wins. Restrictor-plate racing, however, is more like a slot machine — anyone with a quarter and the ability to pull a lever has an equal shot at hitting the jackpot.
For that reason, fans love restrictor-plate racing. You never know when The Big One will happen and you never know who will streak across the finish line first. And that’s exactly why racers hate those four weekends a year where their skill level is barely a factor in the outcome.
Ryan Newman was certainly none too pleased after climbing out of his car (or what was left of it) on Sunday. For the second time in the last three years, Newman was driving along at Talladega, minding his own business, when a car fell out of the sky and onto the hood of his Chevy.
Judging by his frustration level, it was an unnerving experience. Newman blasted NASCAR for the inability to keep the cars on the ground as well as the decision to run the remainder of the race in a light drizzle in virtual darkness.
I’m sure someone from Daytona Beach will be in touch with Newman at some point this week to set him straight. He may even be forced to pay a fine for speaking out of turn.
The mistake Newman made is confusing the spectacle that occurred Sunday with an auto race. The show had to go on, even if the rules had to be changed and the purity of the competition had to be compromised to accommodate the gathering darkness.
In short, Newman will be reminded that he needs to show up in Daytona and Talladega content to pull the lever and allow the chips (or the cars) to fall where they may.
Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Times-News. On Twitter, he is @KTNSportsOngie. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can hear him every Monday morning at 9:05 on “Good Morning Tri-Cities” with Tom Taylor on 870 AM and 100.7 FM.