David Ragan heads to Daytona seeking back-to-back restrictor plate track wins

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Pop quiz: Dating back to the start of the 2011 season, three drivers have won two restrictor plate races each – six out of 10 races in that time period.

Two of the three drivers aren’t a surprise: Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth.

But who is the third driver to win two, as well?

Could it be Kurt Busch? Kyle Busch? Tony Stewart? Kevin Harvick? Carl Edwards? Brad Keselowski?

Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope and nope.

(A big hint: he won at Daytona AND Talladega – the only tracks he’s won at thus far in his career.)

Would you believe that third driver is … drum roll, please … David Ragan?

Yep, the pride and joy of Unadilla, Ga., won the 2011 Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway and the 2013 Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway earlier this year, where he and teammate David Gilliland finished 1-2 for Front Row Motorsports.

And as the Sprint Cup world prepares for this Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, Ragan is looking to make it back-to-back plate track wins.

“Hopefully, that win in the spring, some guys still remember that and they’re comfortable drafting with me,” Ragan said during NASCAR’s weekly media teleconference on Tuesday. “And I’ve got a lot of friends; that’s a good thing.

“It worked out perfect having David Gilliland as a teammate right behind me. I knew what he was going to do without even having to ask or think about it. If that happens again, that’s certainly a positive for us. But we’ll look forward to getting there on Thursday, practicing some, and then we’ll have a lot better idea of what our strategy will be and what kind of car we’ll have and what kind of — how aggressive I can be or how conservative I’ll have to be throughout the night.”

Ragan won his first career Cup race under the Roush Fenway Racing banner. He looks back with fondness at that breakthrough triumph, as well as his return to Daytona for this weekend’s Coke Zero 400, just two years removed from his first win.

“Daytona is a special place to me and my family,” Ragan said. “Obviously, the first-ever Daytona 500 you always remember. Daytona is a special place in general, but certainly having been to victory lane there makes it extra special. You’ve got confidence going into that race knowing that you’ve been there, you’ve done that, you know when to go hard and when to be conservative.

“So I always have a lot of fond memories of Daytona; Speedweeks in February, certainly the July race.  And I’ll have those same feelings and emotions, I’m sure, when I drive through the tunnel the first time this week.”

The 2011 win at Daytona wasn’t Ragan’s first taste of success at the 2.5-mile high-banked superspeedway. He literally took the place like a duck to water in his first-ever start in the Daytona 500 there in 2007.

“(It was) the start of my rookie season in ’07, and we go to Daytona and we finish fifth in the 500, and that was when I felt like, ‘Man, this is the Daytona 500, we got a top 5, we maybe had a shot to win,'” Ragan said. “But I didn’t even realize what I was doing really. You look back at it, six months down the road and a year down the road, and you realize how special of a day that was.

“But the ’07 500 is probably the first time in a Sprint Cup car that I felt like, man, this is where I need to be.  I feel comfortable, and I was at ease after that race knowing that I could compete with the best.”

But with the success Ragan has had at Daytona also comes the trouble he’s endured. In the three races following his triumph there, he’s been involved in wrecks, mostly caught up in other drivers’ mistakes.

As a result, he went from finishing first in summer 2011 to finishing 43rd, 26th and 35th in the subsequent appearances at DIS.

“There’s a lot of strategy into being around at the end of these speedway races, and there’s different strategies for different teams, different manufacturers, depending on what your strong suits are, what your weaknesses are,” Ragan said. “We just got out of a meeting talking about what our strategies are for the weekend, and some of the things that we look at is the Daytona race in July is a lot different than the 500-mile race in February.  The temperature, obviously the distance, 100 miles less, and the racing is a little different.

“I was wrecked in 2012 on the first lap of the Daytona 500, and I believe the summer race of 2012 I was wrecked in the last five laps. So you look at both of those races and think about what you did right and what you did wrong. All I can say is a lot of it is a gut decision. In my opinion you can’t sit here on a Tuesday or even on a Thursday or Friday and have a plan and just stick to it. You’ve got to make decisions as the flow of the race changes. If they have a big wreck early in the race and there’s only 25 cars running, then your strategy changes. If there’s 40 cars still running at the end of the race with 50 laps to go, your strategy changes again.”

It’s rare enough for some drivers to win one restrictor plate track, but to win one each at both tracks is a significant accomplishment. Even though Daytona and Talladega are the only restrictor plate tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit, and despite the fact they’re two of the longest tracks as well, Ragan said there’s a night and day difference between the two.

“The races are really different at Daytona and Talladega,” he said. “Obviously the size of the track, the width of the track is different. Both are 500-mile races (but at Talladega) it’s a lot easier to pass. It’s wider so you can maneuver. Handling doesn’t matter as much, so you can take two tires, you can take no tires very often and you’re still fine.

“But Daytona is opposite, and I think that the only thing that’s in my back pocket from those speedway wins is maybe some confidence in the other drivers’ eyes that, ‘Hey, David can make a good decision; we can stick with him; I feel comfortable drafting with him.’ I think that’s the only thing that we can really take.”

INDYCAR: What Drivers Said after Friday’s two practices at Barber

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Here’s what drivers had to say after Friday’s two practice sessions for Sunday’s Honda Grand Prix of Alabama (there’s one final practice plus qualifying on Saturday):

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, 2017 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama winner, 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series champion): “It’s great…home track for me. It wins the war between this place and Indianapolis (Motor Speedway) because it’s an hour closer, so I think that’s why I call it the home track. Unfortunately, we don’t race in Nashville anymore. But I’ve always loved Barber. It is a special place for me. It’s the place I got my first win with CFH (Racing) back in the day, and it’s a place I won my first race for Team Penske. It’s had a couple firsts for me, so it’s been good for that. Good memories. I love this racetrack. I think it’s one of the best that we get to drive at from sort of a style standpoint. It’s very technical, but it’s got a lot of flow to it. It feels kind of like a roller coaster to me is the best way to describe the style of it. I have a lot of fun here. I think it’s great. We’re going to try and have a good weekend. We had a pretty good start for the most part. We had some issues in the first session. Just kind of been dealing with a couple things that I think we got sorted out for the second session there, but we seem like we’ve got some speed. I think our other cars got some speed, as well. Simon (Pagenaud) looked like he suffered from maybe a similar problem, and I don’t think Will (Power) had a very good lap, so I think those guys will be right there with us. Team Penske I think is going to be strong tomorrow, I’m sure.

MATHEUS “MATT” LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “We’re struggling with understeer in mid-corner, so we need more rotation in the car. If we can fix the mid-corner understeer, we’re going to have a fast car tomorrow. We’ll keep working on it, and hopefully we’ll have a great weekend.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda): “We learned a lot today. We tried to come test here a few weeks ago, but unfortunately Mother Nature had a different plan, so we didn’t get a lot of running in. We came into this weekend with a bit of an evolution from what we tested, still were a little bit off, and over lunch, the Arrow Electronics guys made a couple of great changes. It doesn’t look great on the time sheets because our fast lap was when that red flag came out, so they took it away from us. I think we’re decently inside the top 10, which is a big jump from this morning.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda): “We lost water pressure somewhere in the Lucas Oil car, so we’re playing it safe. No water pressure means no water circulation to the engine, then it overheats and blows up. We’re taking the precautions to keep the engine alive, but unfortunately, we stopped after a couple of laps. It’s an hour free practice and we only did two competitive laps, so we’re just watching everyone else improve their cars and we aren’t able to right now. It’s pretty disappointing.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “We’re in the ballpark at the front, which is a good start for the No. 9 PNC Bank team. The Penske cars are up front and I think that’s a result of them doing some additional testing here. We kind of expected that to start. We did a qualifying run and the car was just too loose for some reason. And then we were fighting understeer this morning, so we’ve seen both sides of it. Now it’s up to us to get it right for qualifying tomorrow.”

ED JONES (No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “It was a difficult end to the day for us. I think after starting well this morning, we struggled in the afternoon. It could have been the heat that affected us, I’m not really sure. Tonight, we’ll have to look at the data and what we learned from the NTT DATA car, talk to Scott (Dixon) and look toward tomorrow. I’m optimistic because we have a good base setup and we just need a little bit more work to get it right.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “I think once again the temperature of the track really makes it tough in these cars. It was very nice this morning and was easy to get lap times. And then all of a sudden this afternoon, even on reds (Firestone alternate tires), it’s very difficult to get the car right. We’re going to have to go back and have a good think about it.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “It’s a difficult day. We’re struggling a lot. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 Mi-Jack Honda): “Today was OK. I didn’t think that we were great there in the second practice, but if you’re off a little bit, it can make a five-, six-, seven-spot difference. It’s going to be really tight (on the time sheets) there tomorrow, so we’ve got to work on it and get it a little better.” (About whether qualifying performance is even more important if rain falls during the race:) “Qualifying will be important, but I think if it’s rainy, I think you will be able to make moves and you will see a lot of guys make mistakes.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 Team SealMaster Honda): “I am not quite sure what to think about the whole day. We are not super happy with the car, but in the meantime, it is decently fast. We made some gains and at least the car is doing one thing, so that’s the good thing. The SealMaster Honda No. 18 is in the ballpark. It seems like all we are doing right now is preparing for qualifying because it is definitely going to rain on Sunday. We are going to have to think very hard on what we are going to do in those conditions. We just have to keep working and see what we get tomorrow.”

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 Paysafe Honda): “We didn’t have a great morning aboard the No. 19 Paysafe car as we struggled a bit with the balance, but the second practice session was a lot better. We ended up P12, but had the potential for a lot more. When we went out on the Firestone red (alternate) tires near the end of the session, a red flag came out and that didn’t help us. I think we definitely could have been in the top 10, maybe even the top five. Overall, it’s encouraging heading into practice and qualifying tomorrow.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “This morning was really good and we made some good progress. For this afternoon’s session, we changed a couple of things to see if they helped. We’re keeping the tradition, though, of not getting a lap time on reds (Firestone alternate tires), between traffic and red flags and yellows. We are farther down than I think we should be. We should be quite a bit quicker, probably seven or eight tenths faster than what we were. We’re not a million miles away. We just need a few more small improvements to get me a bit more comfortable with the car.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “That was a really good session. It’s nice to end up at the front here at Barber. It’s one of my favorite tracks, I really enjoy it. The session was good right from the get-go on black (Firestone primary) tires. We were quite fast, then when we put the reds (Firestone alternate tires) on, the car just gained more grip. Sometimes when you put them on, it can really change the balance, but this time it felt really good. We were able to get a little more out of the car in pretty much every corner. I’m very happy with the Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevy so far, hopefully we can keep it up there.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “The car is really fast. It was a really good session to start. But unfortunately, we had a bit of a spin on the reds (Firestone alternate tires) trying a little too hard, I guess. That’s what you have to do before qualifying. You have to find the limits, but I’m very happy with the Menards car. I think we’ll be in great shape tomorrow.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Group One Thousand One Honda): “So far, it’s just been really nice to have experience at this track, which makes it a little easier coming in. We’ve been trying a lot of things today and I think we were a little stronger in the morning than this afternoon. We have a bit to go back and look at, but compared to where I was here last year, it’s night and day difference. I’m just happy to have the opportunity that we do, and we’re going to keep pushing forward.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 Kerauno / MilitaryToMotorsports.com Honda, Verizon IndyCar Series points leader): “This morning was definitely a struggle for all of us. I think the No. 27 car was the most outside of the window, but we made a lot of improvements over lunch. We have something to be positive about going into this evening and looking forward to tomorrow. I think we need to take one or two steps in a similar direction, but if we can do that, I think the Kerauno car will be good enough for the Firestone Fast Six.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “I think we made steady progress through the day. We started out with the rear of the car way too exposed, too loose through most corners. We needed to bring it more into the window, which I think we did in the final session, considering we didn’t get a full run on new red tires due to a red flag. I think the DHL car has some good pace in it, so hopefully we can make the next step tomorrow.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “The second session was better. I think we made some good progress from the first one. The first session was a little bit of finding the right direction to go in and it seems we found one. Still, we have a little work to be done Saturday. Having said that, there was quite a few yellows and red flags that interrupted the session. I know everyone is in the same boat, but our best lap was like a rerun and we were never able to do a long run, so it’s a little gray on how we will be for Sunday (in the race). We lost some downforce compared to last year and the tires have quite a good drop-off, or degradation, so after you use them the first or second timed lap, the tires are losing a lot of grip. It’s not a huge amount, we’re talking about a small amount, but it’s enough to make a difference. We are trying a different kind of philosophy in terms of the mechanical setup, trying to match the balance and grip level of where we were last year, so that’s why everyone is trying different things. Some people struggle, some people find a happy place.”

RENE BINDER (No. 32 Binderholz tiptop timber Chevrolet): “I think that the practice went well in the beginning. We did find some improvement, so it went better and better. Then we put the red tires on and I tried to push hard and maybe a little too much. I then lost the car, it went straight into the wall. It was a little bit too late with my hands, taking them off the steering wheel, so my left hand hurts a little bit.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Tough day for us today. We had a mechanical issue towards the end of Practice 2, so it cut our time on track short. I know the Harding Racing guys are working hard to make sure everything will be good to go tomorrow for Practice 3 and qualifying. We’ll keep at it tonight to be ready to push tomorrow.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 Kerauno / Curb Honda): “The Kerauno car was decent today, and coming out of Friday in the top 10 is a good place to start the weekend. We have a few things we want to work on overnight that I think will help the car be even better, and that’s what we’re going to focus on. Hoping to make it into the Firestone Fast Six tomorrow and challenge for the pole.”