Just a little over four months ago, David Ragan left Daytona International Speedway in a state of despair, after his much-sought maiden Cup series victory evaporated before his eyes after he was penalised for changing lanes too soon while in the lead at the penultimate restart of February's Daytona 500.
Trevor Bayne went on to win that race, becoming the youngest winner in the illustrious event's history and an overnight star in the process; Ragan, on the other hand, was left to slip anonymously away wondering what might have been.
The Coke Zero 400 might not be up there in prestige with the Daytona 500, but when it comes to setting the record straight, proving a point and moreover opening his 'race wins' account in Sprint Cup racing at a key time with regards to future job security, it will do very nicely indeed.
Ragan had already qualified a very strong fifth place on Friday evening, and headed to the start line for the green flag behind a front row consisting of Mark Martin and Trevor Bayne, and a second of Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon. Ragan himself had Dale Earnhardt Jr. alongside him, and more crucially rookie Andy Lally immediately behind - as two-car drafting was already clearly going to be the order of the day, and Ragan needed someone to partner with pretty quickly or risk haemorrhaging early track positions.
Ahead, experienced campaigners Martin and Gordon teamed up to make a good getaway while Bayne and Bowyer attempted to hook up on the inside; but for Bowyer it was a purely casual fling and he quickly dropped Bayne to check in with his Richard Childress Racing teammate Jeff Burton as soon as possible, leaving Bayne casting around for assistance as he started to drop back. He thought he'd found it with Brad Keselowski and the two managed to hook up as they headed down the frontstretch into lap 5, but they hadn't got the rhythm right and disaster for Bayne ensued.
"I was kind of falling through the field, we found the #2 car," explained Bayne. "He got to us and was pushing us down the frontstretch. I was still kind of lifting a little bit, letting him get to my bumper, and then I got back to the gas wide-open ... I don't know if I turned down more getting in or if he kind of came up across our bumper, but, either way, our bumpers caught wrong and it sent us spinning. You know that can happen here. It happens all the time, but it's tough that it was our car."
Bayne's #21 went nose-first into the wall at turn 1 and was out of the race with extensive front-end damage, classified in 41st position - the worst finish for a driver who had won the same year's Daytona 500 since Cale Yarborough in 1983, which is at least prestigious company for the 20-year-old current Nationwide regular only recently back to active duty after his six-week medical hiatus.
Clint Bowyer, Bobby Labonte and Jamie McMurray were among those with some damage and who came in to pit road for a check-over during the ensuing caution. The leaders stayed out, but pretty much everyone from Jeff Burton (in 18th) on down took the opportunity to come in. Brad Keselowski escaped significant damage, but his reputation was temporarily affected and he found himself with few takers for drafting alliances and by lap 22 he was running a lonely last on the track before finally going a lap down, such is the consequence for unintentionally wrecking someone on such a teamwork-reliant circuit.
Mark Martin led Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and David Ragan to the restart on lap 8, but Johnson and Earnhardt had poor restarts and briefly fell back, and instead it was Ragan who was in hot pursuit of the two leaders now that he himself had connected with Matt Kenseth for drafting services. Alongside them, Carl Edwards had hooked up with Greg Biffle while further back the drafting pairs forming included Tony Stewart and David Gilliland in 13th/ 14th, and Kurt Busch with Regan Smith.
Johnson and Earnhardt had also got their act sorted, and the #48 propelled Earnhardt past Martin for the lead on lap 16, but then they got disconnected and became easy prey for Kurt Busch and Regan Smith to steam past, and then a couple of laps later it was Carl Edwards' turn to lead. But on lap 23, it all went horribly wrong for Edwards: he and Biffle moved to the outside to avoid contact with Busch/Smith, and Edwards rubbed across the front of Biffle's bumper and the contact sent him spinning into the inside wall out of turn 4.
"It was just the timing of everything. I was being aggressive and kind of having a little bit of fun, but that's what we decided we were gonna try to do," he said afterwards. "We were gonna go out there and race a little harder this time. We had the points lead and not a lot to lose."
The damage was extensive, the right-side crush panels broken and the damaged exhaust venting carbon monoxide into the car and sending temperatures in the #99 soaring. Edwards kept on circulating but fell further and further off the lead lap as the team continually brought him into the pits for running repairs to try and prevent their driver either suffocating or parboiling to death.
In the end he would finish in 37th place, 26 laps off the lead, and as a result, Edwards lost the Cup series points lead despite coming into Daytona with a 25pt advantage over Kevin Harvick - a major hit in anyone's book.
"It's no big deal. It is what it is," he insisted. "We just have to make sure we do well in the Chase." And making the Chase is still in no doubt whatsoever - not only is it highly unlikely he'll fail to finish in the top ten, he also has a race win that should assure him of the two wildcard entries to the post-season shoot-out stage if it were really necessary.
With Edwards out of the picture, Kevin Harvick won the race off pit road to lead at the restart on lap 26 with drafting assistance from Paul Menard, quickly joined at the front by Ragan and Kenseth and also by Martin Truex Jr. who led the race for the first time on lap 31 after hooking up with David Reutimann.
Brad Keselowski was also back at the front, after having got the lucky dog free pass under the second caution and then hooking up with his Red Bull team mate Brian Vickers, before then getting separated and ending up forming an alliance with the only other driver to have accidentally spun his drafting partner out of the race - Greg Biffle. It was a marriage made of slightly unfortunate convenience.
When the third caution of the afternoon came out on lap 48 - when Dave Blaney hit the wall in turn 2 - the top 18 had string out to single file and it happened to be Matt Kenseth's turn in the lead when the yellow flag came out. After pit stops, Truex Jr. soon picked up the lead with Reutimann, then Smith and Busch, then Kenseth with Ragan, and then Kasey Kahne who had now been able to relocate his team mate Brian Vickers. No one was able to hold on to the lead for long though, and having to swap a drafting pair's running order to stop the pushing car from overheating quickly resulted in a drop in position for everyone.
Other drivers and teams were opting for a different strategy: looking unlikely to run at the front at this stage, they decided instead to seek refuge at the back of the lead lap and aim to stay out of trouble. Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton and the Richard Petty Motorsports duo of AJ Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose were among those to take this approach.
Tony Stewart and David Gilliland had been resolutely mid-pack for the first third of the race but suddenly turned the power up and took the lead for the first time on lap 70; others starting to find their rhythm included Travis Kvapil and Joe Nemechek who cracked the top ten at around the same stage of the evening, and Joe Gibbs Racing pair Kyle Busch and Joey Logano who had made it into the top five by lap 80, having had very poor qualifying positions after foregoing qualifying speed set-ups in practice to focus instead on drafting tactics. Terry Labonte and Andy Lally were another interesting pairing in the top ten at this stage, while further back the bigger names and more experienced drivers seemed to be biding their time - Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson in the mid-teens and former leaders Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin opting to lurk just outside the top 20 close to Juan Montoya and Jamie McMurray.
On lap 91 the Red Bull duo of Vickers and Kahne were the first of the leaders to pit under green for tyres and fuel, and the rest of the field followed suit without incident over the next ten laps, after which Kahne and Vickers took fright and decided to head for the rear of the lead lap for safety for a while.
With 40 laps to go there was a definite change in the feel of the race. Newman/Hamlin and Montoya/McMurray all took this as a sign to go to the front, while all four Richard Childress Racing cars looked ominously hooked up and ready to pounce. The lengthy green flag spell had inevitably had its casualties and a number of cars had been dropped off the lead pack and were struggling some 10 seconds down, among them Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Marcos Ambrose, AJ Allmendinger, Brad Keselowski and Greg Biffle, but there were still 22 cars in the lead pack as of lap 127.
More green flag pit stops kicked off as the laps reached 130 with 30 to go: afterwards, the leaders consisted of the pairings of Harvick/Menard, Newman/Hamlin and Kyle Busch with Joey Logano, despite the JGR team's concerns that Logano's radiator fan might have actually melted.
With 10 laps to go of the scheduled 160 laps, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon had managed to recover their position during the pit stops and make it back into the top ten, leaving Tony Stewart, David Gilliland, Keselowski, Biffle, Joe Nemechek and Travis Kvapil over 20 seconds back and urgently needing a caution if they were to have any hope of featuring at the end, while Ambrose, Allmendinger, Andy Lally and Terry Labonte had all slipped a lap down. Surely there had to be a caution soon, after more than a hundred laps of green flag running?
Jeff Gordon obliged on lap 157 just three laps shy of the scheduled race distance. He went for a huge 90-degree sideways slide after contact from Kahne and somehow managed the save of the day to keep the #24 off the wall.
"Everybody was just really getting anxious and it was time to go and somebody got outside of me and Mark coming off of two which made it three wide and had the #83 and #4 on the inside," said Gordon. "Went into three and I don't know somebody got in the back of the #4 and pushed him up into me and I had nowhere to go. Then the car came around and luckily I straightened it out somehow and came back and fixed it and got four tires.
"I felt it start to catch and lose momentum and it started to straighten out. The [31-degree] banking pretty much did most of the work, maybe a little side force in the car, too. We were just lucky we didn't get hit, I straightened it up and away we went. That was pretty cool and pretty lucky all at the same time."
"Jeff Gordon did an awesome job of working with me and I thought we were doing really, really good and he just got run into," lamented his team mate and drafting partner Mark Martin.
Behind Gordon, it triggered the usual knock-on collisions as the closely-packed field stood on the brakes and made evasive manoeuvres, with Kyle Busch damaging the #18 when he ran up into the wall. Gordon and Kyle Busch both had to head for the pits for lengthy repairs before the race got set for its first green-white-chequered finish. This meant they were disconnected from the long-time drafting partners and had little recourse other than to hook up with each other if they wanted to achieve anything.
"I just got with the #24 who was behind me and he never lifted, I don't think, the last two laps. So, we just dug a hole through the bottom side and made it up there," said Kyle later, of a successful scratch pairing that propelled them both in the top six by the end. However, Kyle was sorry that he hadn't been able to see the race through with his JGR team mate: "I wish I could've worked with Joey and him or I could've won this thing, but still it was a good day."
Strangely, Jimmy Johnson also opted to pit - perhaps worried about fuel - and got separated from his own drafting parter the #88 of Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the process to the disadvantage of both. Gordon, on the other hand, would have reason to be thankful to be apart up from his Hendrick Motorsports team mate Mark Martin for the final laps, because things were about to get very interesting up at the front centring around the #5.
The restart on lap 162 saw Newman in front with Hamlin, then Ragan and Kenseth followed by the Red Bull duo of Vickers and Kahne newly restored from the back of the pack. But Joey Logano tried squeezing through a gap between Mark Martin and Brian Vickers and almost immediately sent Martin into a serious hit against the wall in turn 2.
"It was on the restart. I was shooting on the center, and Mark was trying to come down in front of me," said Logano afterwards. "In the race I was wide open, I didn't care. And he was coming down across me. We were going to try to team up there if we were able to do that, but I was going to go in there guns blazing and see what the heck happened on the other side and try to find a partner once I got over there."
"It was going to come to this at the end, but it was a blast 'til the end," said Martin, who is well known as being no fan of restrictor plate racing. "He got up against me and I got a little loose and I could've saved it, but there was just too many cars. There were cars everywhere and they all started clacking together and so the wreck was on."
With the pack still so closely bunched together, the fall-out from this was inevitable, immediate and extensive. As well as Martin, Logano and Kahne, another ten cars were caught up in the wreck: Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Landon Cassill, Brian Vickers, Regan Smith, Kurt Busch, Joe Nemechek, Casey Mears, Tony Stewart, David Reutimann were all involved in the mayhem.
So much for the first of up to three green-white-chequered attempts at finishing. It had left David Ragan at the front of the field for the next attempt on lap 168 with his Ryan Newman alongside him, and their respective drafting partners Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin in perfect position to do the business right behind them. In contrast, Kevin Harvick found himself starting alongside his drafting partner Paul Menard on the third row of the grid, which meant they would have to orchestrate falling into line before they could think of charging for the lead - which not only put them at a disadvantage but also meant it was unlikely that anyone further back would be able to make a go of it from the green flag either.
So it seemed to have come down to a four-car shootout, and when the green flew it was Kenseth who brilliantly powered his Roush Fenway Racing team mate David Ragan into the lead, comprehensively out-gunning Newman and Hamlin from the get-go as they got disconnected and fell backwards. The win was Ragan and Kenseth's for the taking, assuming that this green-white-chequered counted and wasn't aborted for any more wrecks.
There was a wreck - but not until seconds after the white flag came out making the running order the official race result. Ragan had indeed won, putting to rights that agonising near-miss at the Daytona 500 at the start of the season. Moreover, it finally gave Ragan his first Cup series win after the painfully long 163 race wait since his NASCAR series championship debut.
"It would have been tough to lose another one. I thought about that, actually, under that last caution. I said, 'Man, if we don't win this thing, I'm not going to talk to anyone afterward!'", he said. "This is a great race. It does ease the pain [of February], and so we'll think about this one a lot more than we'll think about the Daytona 500."
Ragan follows Bayne and Regan Smith as the third first-time winner in 2011, a year that's seen 12 different winners in 17 races. It also means that all three restrictor plate races have had different winners (Bayne at Daytona, Johnson at Talladega, and now Ragan) and that there have been eight different winners in the last eight Daytona races.
Joey Logano emerged in third place when the final caution flag came out signalling the end of the race, after the #20 hooked up with Kasey Kahne running in fourth place; the Kyle Busch/Jeff Gordon scratch pairing had squeaked through the last two wrecks to claim fifth and sixth after restarting at the back of the top 30, while Harvick and Menard had managed to hold on to seventh and eighth.
"I'm just amazed that we were able to come back to sixth," said Gordon. "We were what, 30th, 31st on that second-to-last restart?"
Among those caught up in the chaos on the penultimate lap - which had involved 15 cars in two separate incidents - were Newman and Hamlin. Jamie McMurray had made contact with Earnhardt Jr. and ended up hitting his Earnhardt Ganassi team mate Juan Montoya, also catching up AJ Allmendinger, Jeff Burton and Jimmie Johnson in the wreck. The #42 was just about able to stagger to the finish line in ninth with Allmendinger following in tenth.
Earnhardt claimed that McMurray "just drove into the side of me and turned me onto the apron," adding: "I had it saved, and then he came on and got him another shot ... Brought the KO punch the second time and spun us around." Earnhardt's cause hadn't been helped by being separated from his drafting partner Jimmie Johnson in the pits: "I'm driving my car, do what I'm told," a heated Earnhardt said. "They decided to do something different. I can't run the whole damn thing from the seat of the damn race car."
Junior Nation fans were blaming the #48 for abandoning their idol. "I didn't leave Jr hanging, you people are crazy," Johnson responded on Twitter. "When my crew tells me to pit, I pit. Steve [Letarte, Earnhardt's crew chief] and Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief] sort out the details."
But really, Earnhardt was incandescent about the whole draft-style racing and the need for pairing up in the first place, and made his feelings well and truly known: "You guys need to get your own frickin' opinions and write what y'all think about it," he said. "Because I think they're pretty damn close to mine. So stop putting my damn foot in my mouth with y'all and getting my ass in trouble. Y'all write what y'all think, man. C'mon. Y'all are good. Y'all got an opinion about it; I read y'all's shit."
The other incident that occurred on that final lap was at the back of the pack starting with Marcos Ambrose and Landon Cassill making contact and then catching out David Reutimann, Brian Vickers and Tony Stewart, who commented: "That last wreck we were caught about eight back behind where it all started trying to dodge all the guys that got wrecked."
But as the dust settled from the final lap carnage, the day belonged emphatically to first time winner David Ragan who was clearly in seventh heaven:
"There's no better place to win your first race than Daytona, it couldn't be any better ... There's not a better night to win. This is awesome!" he said. "I probably won't go to sleep tonight. I'm going to get back and watch some of the race - and just stare at that trophy, maybe, for a little while."
Quite right, too.Full times and positions available