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

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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.”

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

CJ Wilson completes first test in Porsche GT3 Cup car

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Photo courtesy of CJ Wilson Racing
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CJ Wilson’s new career is officially underway, following his retirement from professional baseball and now having completed his first test last week at Texas World Speedway in his new 2017 Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car.

Wilson, who formally announced the news he’d be transitioning into racing full-time during Rolex 24 at Daytona race week, did a two-day test at the still active oval/road course combo track in College Station, Texas. Wilson tested one of the team’s Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsports (the team runs two in IMSA’s Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge) and then advanced into the Cup car.

Wilson got fairly close to teammate Marc Miller’s times during the test as he acclimated to both the Cup car and the Yokohama tires.

“It’s great to take another step towards my goals,” Wilson said. “We had a chance to burn through two sets of tires today and I made a lot of progress. Having Marc as my coach was incredibly helpful because we have a lot of faith in each other and communicate using the same terms. Having sat in driver debriefings for the past six years with the race team, I was able to take all the input logically and make progress each session.

“The only odd thing about the test is that nobody else was here, which was the first time I have ever been on a track completely alone, so when we did a race simulation I had to use my imagination. TWS is a really fast and bumpy track. Looking forward to getting back in the car in ten days and pick up where I left off.”

Miller added, “CJ did great job, but I expected as much. He is logical and methodical which makes him easy to help and that translated into a very quick progression along the learning curve. Like any professional athlete though he is never truly satisfied because he wants to be perfect. He took quickly to the new Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car. It is confidence inspiring and such a capable platform so that suited him well in getting up to speed. Overall, it was a successful first outing and I look forward to working with CJ this season. I expect he will have a solid debut at Sebring. He better or I’m likely fired.”

A teaser of on-board footage is below, along with a couple other social posts from the test:

Danny Watts: ‘Staying hidden was nothing but torture and pain’

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 22:  (l to r) Strakka Racing drivers Danny Watts, Nick Leventis and Jonny Kane pose during the 2013 FIA World Endurance Championship Photo Call on March 22, 2013 at Potters Fields in London, England.  (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
Watts (left) with Leventis and Kane in 2013. Photo: Getty Images
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Sports car veteran driver Danny Watts has announced his retirement from active competition, but is in the news for an entirely different reason on Monday.

The 37-year-old Brit has announced he’s gay, penning a first-person piece for the Huffington Post and also doing interviews with both Daily Sportscar and Autosport. The latter article features a well-written op-ed from author Matt Beer.

In the Huffington Post piece, Watts, an eight-time starter and 2010 LMP2 class winner at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, wrote that hiding his sexuality in the heavily white male heterosexual world of motorsport was simply becoming too much to keep under wraps.

“There isn’t any one moment that stands out in my mind as the moment I realized I would need to live in the closet if I wanted my motorsport career to go anywhere; it was just a general feeling I got,” Watts wrote.

“All the other guys in the paddock had girlfriends, so I got one to blend in. When that relationship ended, I got another one, and so I continued pretending to be straight for seventeen years.

“Staying hidden was nothing but torture and pain.

“I hope that there are a few people who are supportive. If the response I’ve had from the queer motorsport community thus far is any gauge, I feel hopeful that I’ll find a supportive group to start driving change for my queer siblings in the sport I love.”

Within the motorsports world, Watts’ name is best known to the sports car paddock, and he was a regular with the Strakka Racing team alongside co-drivers Jonny Kane and Nick Leventis. But he isn’t particularly known to the racing world at large.

This announcement comes as Watts has opted to call time on his full-time driving career and instead will focus on coaching for the future. It also represents one of the higher profile names in racing announcing his sexual orientation, which makes it newsworthy.

Despite some detractors (as you might expect), a number of other drivers and key motorsports figures have revealed their support for Watts, and why this news matters, on social media today:

Marino Franchitti returns to Mazda at Sebring

SEBRING, FL - MARCH 15:  Left to right, Marino Franchitti, Memo Rojas and Scott Pruett celebrate after winning the 12 Hours of Sebring at Sebring International Raceway on March 15, 2014 in Sebring, Florida.  (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)
Franchitti (left) won at Sebring in 2014. Photo: Getty Images
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Marino Franchitti will make his return to a Mazda entry for next month’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, to be run March 18, as third driver in the team’s No. 70 Mazda RT24-P with Joel Miller and Tom Long.

The Scotsman competed in the team’s RX-8 and 6 models in the GT ranks but has been out of a drive since his role with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing last season in one of the team’s Ford GTs in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

Franchitti replaces James Hinchcliffe, who was the third driver in the No. 70 car at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. He’ll test for the team later this week at Sebring prior to the race run in the second IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race of the year.

“A big part of those results are being with great teams and having great teammates. I’ve been fortunate in that regard,” said Franchitti, who co-drove to win overall at Sebring in 2014. “I love driving there, I always have since the first laps I did. It’s a proper old-school track. If you go over the limit, you crash, simple as that, rather than going onto some tarmac run-off like many tracks. I love the challenge of walking that tightrope. Of course, there’s the challenge of the bumps too, trying to get the car to handle over them and the beating the car and driver takes. There’s a reason people come from all over the world to endurance test their cars here, it’s the ultimate test of a vehicle and its durability.

No. 70 Mazda RT24-P. Photo courtesy of IMSA
No. 70 Mazda RT24-P. Photo courtesy of IMSA

“It’s so cool to be coming back into the Mazda family,” said Franchitti. “Like everyone else, I was blown away when I saw the first shots of the RT24-P and how incredible it looks, so there’s a lot of excitement at getting to drive it. I’m relieved I get a chance to test the car, as many times I’ve just jumped in and raced, so this is a bit of a luxury! Being a part of the development process of a car is something I’ve been lucky enough to do several times and it’s something I really love.”

Mazda Motorsports director John Doonan added, “He’s a proven winner there, and he’s been a part of the Mazda family for years. Just look at his record at Sebring! He has the experience that can really help our team. Because he’s driven with Mazda before, we know his personality is a great fit. That’s important to us, and it goes a long way in helping the team chemistry remain strong. He’s a great fit with Tom [Long] and Joel [Miller], just as Spencer Pigot has been great with Nunez and Bomarito.”

Pipo Derani set for IndyCar test with SPM at Sebring

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Pipo Derani has become a star in the sports car world the last couple years, courtesy of his drives primarily with Tequila Patron ESM.

Meanwhile for at least a day, the 23-year-old Brazilian will be returning to his open-wheel roots in a big way.

NBC Sports has learned Derani will test for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports on March 1 in a rookie test for the Verizon IndyCar Series. Derani joins Mexican driver Luis Michael Dorrbecker, who will also make his test debut that day at that test at Sebring International Raceway’s 1.5-mile short course.

Derani raced a partial season in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires series in 2014 with Team Pelfrey, before shifting to sports cars later that fall, starting with Murphy Prototypes.

Derani excelled with G-Drive in 2015 before his star turn with ESM last year. This year, his schedule grows even greater, as he’s been confirmed with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing for the first three races of the FIA World Endurance Championship season, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans, sharing the No. 67 Ford GT with Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell.

It’ll be interesting to see what Derani does on the Sebring short course in one of SPM’s Honda-powered entries. He’ll be back at Sebring a couple weeks after his IndyCar test, as he prepares to defend his win in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring with ESM.