By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
David Ragan’s first Sprint Cup victory, which came at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday in his 163rd career Cup start, was a long time in coming for him and his family. And for race fans in his home state of Georgia, it also had been a long time since anyone from the Peach State stood in Victory Lane at a Cup race, although the last two Nationwide Series races were won by Reed Sorenson, from Peachtree City, Ga., and Joey Logano, who once lived in the north Atlanta suburb of Alpharetta.
Georgia’s last Cup win came in 2003, when Bill Elliott won the fall race at Rockingham.
That’s a short stretch compared to the Ragan family of the South Georgia town of Unadilla.
“My grandfather, I never met him, but he owned a car,” David Ragan said. “He never drove any, but he owned a car in the ’40s and ’50s.”
Ragan’s father, Ken, and uncle Marvin caught the racing fever as kids and eventually tried their hands at Cup racing, though with little success.
Ken Ragan, racing as an independent in cars owned by his brother, drove in 50 Cup races from 1983 to 1990 but never had a top-10 finish.
Once again, the racing fever spread to a new generation of the Ragan family.
“That’s what ultimately sparked my interest,” David Ragan said of his father’s racing and the friends the family made during that time.
Young David started out racing Legends cars at Atlanta Motor Speedway and moved almost directly from there to the upper levels of NASCAR. His lack of experience hindered him early on, but he’s learned on the job, as his Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth pointed out after they finished 1-2 in Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona.
“I’ve seen David mature a lot and learn a lot,” Kenseth said. “When he came in here and started driving the 6 car, I don’t know David’s whole racing history, but he didn’t have a lot of experience, especially driving big, heavy cars.
“He’s had a couple of different crew chiefs and car chiefs and crews and groups until they found a good mix that worked really well with him. I don’t know why it is like that, but you’ve got to get that right mix of people together and get them all working right together. It seems like he’s got that right now.”
And, as Kenseth pointed out, it was tough for a then 21-year-old Ragan to take over the car made famous by Mark Martin.
“Stepping in the 6 car after Mark leaving and all that stuff isn’t exactly the easiest job in the world,” Kenseth said.
Ragan nearly got his breakthrough win at Daytona in February. He was poised to win the Daytona 500 on a late-race restart but was penalized for changing lanes too soon. Saturday’s 400 miler played out almost exactly the same way, and this time Ragan made no mistakes. With a push from Kenseth, he held on throughout a green-white-checkered-flag run to the finish, redeeming himself for his earlier mistake.
“If we would have won at Martinsville this year, I would have said, ‘Man, we’ve moved on past that Daytona race,’” he said. “But coming back here and to get that win here at Daytona is that extra little bit that I wanted kind of to show the Daytona race track: ‘Here’s what we’ve got.’
“That makes it a little bit more special … coming back here to Daytona, being able to run the same type of race we ran in February and learning from our mistake, not making a mistake.”
He did, however, have several chances on restarts to mess up, and didn’t.
“That’s gratifying that we were able to come back to Daytona and kind of prove to the race track that we’re better than that – that we can take you and we beat ’em,” he said. “It feels good.”