Last year, David Ragan was close to qualifying for the Sprint Cup Series’ Chase for the championship. Ragan, however, came up just short, being the final driver eliminated from NASCAR’s 12-driver, 10-race playoff format.
For some drivers, coming so close to the chase would be devastating. But for Ragan, 2008 proved to his team that it could contend for a championship. As the 2009 season begins for the Unadilla native, Ragan is confident that last season, in which Ragan drew high marks throughout the garage for his improvement from his rookie season the year before, can spur him on to bigger things in 2009.
“I think absolutely we’re capable of making the chase and winning some races,” Ragan said. “We’ve just got to improve from where we are at this time a year ago, and I think the only way to improve that is to make the chase and win some races.”
During his rookie season of 2007, Ragan posted three top-10 finishes and two top-fives, had an average starting position of 29th and finishing spot of 25th — all of which led to a 23rd place in the points standings. A year ago, Ragan finished 13th in the points standings on the strength of 14 top-10s and six top-fives to go with an average starting spot of 17th and finishing position of 16th.
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“It showed us that if we go and do our jobs, have some racing luck and I go and do the right things on the track, we’ll be a contender,” Ragan said. “It’s been good to have an offseason to think about those good runs from last year but also gives us a little bit of time to think about what we need to do to improve.”
Atlanta Motor Speedway president Ed Clark, who has seen Ragan race since he competed in bandolero cars at AMS’ quarter-mile track, thinks that a first victory and a run at a championship aren’t too far away for Ragan.
“He’s got a great team around him and good equipment,” Clark said. “Now, he’s just got to catch a few breaks during races.”
Ragan will look to have a good starting spot in Sunday’s Daytona 500 with a strong showing in today’s Gatorade Duels, a pair of 150-mile races that will set the field for the Daytona 500. Ragan will start 13th in the first duel.
But this year’s qualifying races likely will have more meaning to teams than just earning their starting positions for the Daytona 500. They will also likely serve as a test session of sorts. NASCAR banned testing at its sanctioned tracks for 2009, wiping out two weeks of January testing in Daytona. Because of the ban, teams arrived at Daytona last week without the luxury of information gathered in extensive offseason testing.
Some teams were able to gain more information than others during Saturday’s Bud Shootout and with the practices that came before it.
“I think it makes the Bud Shootout and the 150s that much more important,” Ragan said. “(Today) will be even more important in helping us know what we’re going to have for the 500.
It was certainly a different offseason for Ragan and many others in the NASCAR community. Instead of being away from home during December and January, drivers and team members were at their respective race shops for the most part. Ragan said that he tested somewhat with Roush Fenway’s research and development team and also competed in a handful of legends races.
But the increased time at home wasn’t all bad. In fact, Ragan doesn’t have a hard time finding a silver lining in the lack of testing time since he was able to visit friends and family in Unadilla more this year than in the past.
“It’s been nice having a few more weeks back home in Unadilla for Christmas and even here in Charlotte for the crew members, their families and everyone that works in the race shops,” Ragan said. “It’s been nice for everybody.”
Now, however, it’s time for the business of the NASCAR season to begin. And for Ragan, that means a run at the chase.