David Ragan celebrates his win two months ago at Talladega.

Excited about NASCAR’s Chase changes, Ragan looks for more David vs. Goliath success in 2014

Leave a comment

Ever since he became a full-time Sprint Cup driver in 2007 at the age of 21, David Ragan’s performance has been kind of stuck in neutral – not by choice, mind you.

But for whatever reason – with the exception of a career-best 13th-place finish with Roush Fenway Racing in 2008 – Ragan has finished consistently between 23rd and 28th in the other six of his seven Sprint Cup seasons.

That’s hopefully going to change in 2014. After winning at Talladega last spring (Ragan’s second career Sprint Cup win), being pushed to the finish line by Front Row Motorsports teammate David Gilliland, it gave the entire team a David definitely can beat Goliath kind of confidence.

And if 2014 goes the way Ragan hopes, there’ll be a lot more giant killing to do during the 36-race Sprint Cup season.

“That was a big day for our team and me and David (Gilliland) personally,” Ragan said recently. “A 1-2 finish was something to be proud about. It was an opportunity for us to continue to build our brand.

“Definitely, a lot of good things came from that. It gives our guys motivation that if we all execute the plan we have, that we can win another one if the stars align right and if we put ourselves in the right position. We can’t win races running 20th or 25th, but if we can get to that top 10 or top five, we can win a race. We can win some this year at several different tracks. You’ve got to win one before you win two and before you win three.”

The Unadilla, Ga., native has seen a completely different side of the Sprint Cup world since joining Front Row in 2012 after his contract was not renewed by Roush Fenway when enough sponsorship couldn’t be found.

After five seasons with one of Sprint Cup’s premier teams, signing up with Front Row kind of brought Ragan back to his roots of working with smaller teams before he got his big break with Roush in 2005.

“I’ve kind of matured and opened my eyes up a little bit,” Ragan said. “I was a young guy, 19 years old, when I started at Roush. You come in and it’s a fast-paced world, I’m running Nationwide races and Cup races and traveling to 30-40 sponsor appearances a year.

“You don’t really see the big picture. You have tunnel vision, where you see what you’re doing that given time. That makes it tough and it was tough for me to learn at a young age, so coming to Front Row, a little smaller organization and not as many commitments outside of the race track, you do get a chance to step back and see what’s important in the real world.

“Definitely, my profession and career as a race car driver, I want to be successful and win races, but it’s also important to have a good family, your friends, your loved ones, spend some time with your old grandparents and things. You kind of see what’s going on. That’s probably the difference in between 19 years old and 28 years old.”

Had NASCAR expanded the field of the Chase for the Sprint Cup from 12 to 16 last season, Ragan would have made the 10-race playoffs by virtue of his Talladega win. Even though he didn’t make the Chase, Ragan believes there’s plenty of carryover from last season that can serve as motivation for his efforts in 2014.

“The opportunity to have a few more guys in the Chase is great,” Ragan said. “I think the way it’s going to happen, when you have teams being eliminated from the actual championship contention, that’s a good format, in my opinion.

“To have a Front Row Motorsports capable to make the Chase, you have to step your game up. You’re not going to be able to goof off for nine races and win the championship. You’re going to have to be competitive every single race and win some races throughout the year. Winning is all we want to do, it’s what the fans want to see and I think NASCAR has given us what everybody wants to see.”

Ragan comes from a racing family, one with roots that date back to the earliest days of NASCAR, when his grandfather competed on the beaches of Daytona. Ragan’s father, Ken, competed in 50 career Cup races from 1983 to 1990.

And now third-generation David is carrying on the family tradition. Even though he considers himself an old school racer, Ragan likes the changes NASCAR has made to the Chase, particularly the incentive and excitement that comes with it, and the ability to create a scenario that will mean greater excitement, bigger TV ratings and attract new fans to the sport.

“I guarantee you that whoever wins the Daytona 500, one of their first thoughts is that ‘I’m going to be in the Chase at Chicagoland,'” Ragan said. “It gives me chill bumps about (possibly making the Chase). I’m excited, and I couldn’t be more of a traditional fan.

“My grandfather and family was entering NASCAR races back in the late 1940s, so we’ve been around this sport for a long time. I love all forms of auto racing. I couldn’t be more excited about the upcoming season. I think we have to continue to evolve our sport based on the fans that we have in the world, and based on the world as it changes.

“You look at other sports and they’re consistently making small changes and tweaks. The fundamental parts are always going to be there: You’re going to have 43 cars, you have to go and race and the best guy is going to win.

“It is a game changer and is something that in a positive way can be a great thing for our sport. We all live on instant news, we want every football game to come a time-expired field goal being kicked, or a baseball game in the bottom of the ninth and the team from behind and win, or the 2007 Red Sox, where they came back from an 0-3 deficit. That’s the stuff you always remember, and this is kind of setting it up to have those kinds of finishes.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Here’s a flashback to Ragan’s win last April at Talladega:

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Simon Pagenaud

Simon Pagenaud
Leave a comment

MotorSportsTalk continues its run through the Verizon IndyCar Series field, driver-by-driver, with a look at Simon Pagenaud’s first season at Team Penske.

Simon Pagenaud, No. 22 Team Penske Chevrolet

  • 2014: 5th Place, 2 Wins, 1 Pole, 3 Podiums, 8 Top-5, 12 Top-10, 59 Laps Led, 8.6 Avg. Start, 8.8 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 11th Place, Best Finish 3rd, 1 Pole, 2 Podiums, 4 Top-5, 9 Top-10, 132 Laps Led, 5.2 Avg. Start, 10.6 Avg. Finish

The 2015 season was always going to be a weird one for Simon Pagenaud, in his first season with Team Penske, adapting and adjusting to being with what’s widely regarded as one of the best if not the best teams in the sport. From a career standpoint he needed to move on from Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, where he overachieved for three seasons. And given what became of the Honda aero kit this year, having a Chevrolet at his disposal was always going to be a benefit.

In actuality, Pagenaud didn’t have a bad year, but it was one where the burden of expectation probably hurt his overall stats more than the reality of the situation.

Let’s face facts – he’d finished in the top five in points each of his first three seasons back in IndyCar the last two years, won four races and been in championship contention before. Take all that, apply it to Team Penske and you’d assume wins and title contention would follow, but it didn’t. Still, it was a new team, a fourth team, and that took time to gel.

His qualifying was dynamic, which went against his career form and was markedly improved. His average leapt from 8.6 to 5.2 this year, which was third best in the field. The problem? It trailed two of his three teammates, Will Power and Helio Castroneves, and was only one spot clear of Juan Pablo Montoya.

And then – and there is no easy way to put this – there were his finishes. In 12 of 16 races this season, Pagenaud finished worse than he started. For a driver renowned for making the most of his circumstances on race day, often times things went south when all the marbles, all the points were on the line. Some you could put down to strategy or particularly in the later part of the year, sampling different setups to aid his title-contending teammates.

There were highlights, in particular his speed at the three 500-mile races. Pagenaud was probably the quickest of the four Penske entries at Indianapolis, scored the pole in Fontana and also starred in Pocono, but he didn’t have results to back it up in any of the three. Contact at Indy halted what was certainly winning potential. He also scored a pair of thirds at Detroit race one and Mid-Ohio, although those were cases where he was lucky rather than good.

It was hard to view Pagenaud’s season positively on the whole because you know his potential and ability hasn’t gone missing. But finishing 11th in points when your three teammates end second, third and fifth is definitely a tough pill to swallow, and an early motivator to make the fast Frenchman a top comeback driver in 2016.

Nicky Hayden announces World Superbikes move

ALCANIZ, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 25:  Nicky Hayden of USA and Aspar Team MotoGP rounds the bend during the MotoGP of Spain - Free Practice at Motorland Aragon Circuit on September 25, 2015 in Alcaniz, Spain.  (Photo by Mirco Lazzari gp/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
Leave a comment

2006 MotoGP world champion Nicky Hayden will leave the series at the end of the season ahead of a move into the World Superbike Championship in 2016, it has been announced.

Hayden has raced in MotoGP since 2003 and is currently the only American rider racing in the series, but has struggled to match the form of his early years, scoring just 13 points in 2015.

It had been rumored that Hayden would be walking away from MotoGP at the end of the season for some time, but this has now been confirmed in a statement from WorldSBK.

Hayden will join Honda’s factory team in the rival series, racing alongside Michael van der Mark. The 34-year-old will bid to become the first rider to win both MotoGP and WorldSBK titles.

“Well, my next stop is Superbike with Honda! I’m very excited, obviously, to stick with Honda; it’s where I’ve had the most success in my career,” Hayden said.

“World Superbikes is a championship that I followed closely as a kid when a lot of American riders were fighting at the front. It just seems like the right time and the right team to go with.

“I know I’ve got a lot to learn and it’s going to be a big challenge, but also I’m very motivated to start and learn what I can.

“I’d like to say thanks to everyone who has supported me through my MotoGP career. We had a good run but now it’s time to move on and try something different.”

Hayden’s departure acts as another blow to MotoGP’s profile in the United States, which has seen a downturn in recent years.

The exit of Ben Spies from Yamaha in 2013 was followed by the loss of the race at Laguna Seca the same year, while last month, it was confirmed that Indianapolis would not be returning to the calendar in 2016, leaving just one US round on the schedule.