Carl Edwards may well have more than Kyle Busch can handle (Photo: Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Call him the season’s quiet surprise. Ken Ragan’s boy David is making a name for himself in this his second year on the NASCAR Cup tour, and when he gets that breakthrough win – maybe not too far away – it should be no surprise.
Maybe even Tony Stewart is impressed: Stewart, who once called Ragan “a dart with no feathers.”
In fact, in the next few weeks Stewart may have to face David Ragan in the championship chase.
…if Ragan can squeeze just a little more out of the regular season’s final three races – Saturday night’s Bristol 500, next weekend’s California 500 in Los Angeles, and the playoff cut in the Richmond 400 the following Saturday.
But Ragan tried to squeeze a bit too much out of Friday’s qualifying runs and will be in a backup for this 500.
And Jimmy Fennig, Ragan’s taciturn crew chief, from the old-school mold, a la Bobby Allison, says he just wants Ragan to get through Saturday’s run here without any mistakes, before thinking any bigger. After all, Ragan spun out four times in this race last summer.
And then Ragan slammed the wall in Friday qualifying and will be starting at the rear of the field.
David Ragan is one of NASCAR’s newest shining stars…but that still didn’t keep him out of the Bristol wall Friday (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
That will make for a long Saturday night. “I felt I would have enough track to chase it down, and didn’t get out of the throttle, holding on for that extra split-second,” Ragan said. “Now we’ll just have to try to make the best out of a bad situation.”
Certainly Ragan and Fennig have car owner Jack Roush on the edge of his seat for this final 15-day sprint to the playoffs.
Carl Edwards, Roush’s best bet to upset Toyota’s Kyle Busch in this year’s title run, followed up last weekend’s Michigan win by taking the pole for the Sharpie 500, his first of the year, with a lap at 121.860 mph, 15.746 seconds around high-banked Bristol Motor Speedway. Patrick Carpentier, Jeff Green and Johnny Sauter were the only men failing to make the field. But Dale Earnhardt Jr. (starting 40th), Jimmie Johnson (34th) and Tony Stewart (28th) were also unimpressive.
“In this sport, when you unload you’re either fast or you’re not,” Edwards said. “And it’s hard to turn a weekend around if you start off badly.”
Maybe Ragan can disprove that. And Ragan, if he can recover here, may be a title player too—like Clint Bowyer, who came out of nowhere down the stretch last year to make a game of it against Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon.
Hello Walls. David Ragan doesn’t have smooth sailing at Bristol (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Ragan and Fennig are just 26 points behind 12th-place Denny Hamlin, in what is suddenly a red-hot fight among half a dozen men to make the 12-team cut.
Ragan has made his impressive march to the top not because of his aggressiveness but because of his smarts, perhaps new-found, after that ragged career start.
“As you get more aggressive, you better have some experience to back it up,” Ragan said. “I tried to be aggressive my first few starts in this series, and I didn’t have the experience to back it up, and I looked like a fool.
“Now I’ve got the experience to back it up.
“I’ve obviously got better car-control and a better feel for what I need in the car to go fast…and probably have a little bit more respect from the competitors.
“Everything is just a little easier.
“When you have all those things, you can afford to be more aggressive, when you know what’s going to happen—if you tried to be aggressive and you don’t know what you’re doing, you usually wind up getting yourself in trouble.”
Crew chief Jimmy Fennig (L) and David Ragan. Fennig, classic old school racer, may be the perfect pairing with Jack Roush’s 22-year-old newcomer (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)
“Last year was a learning year…and the only way to learn is to race these guys,” Fennig says. “You can do all the testing you want, but you’ve got to race them to learn how they race.”
Over the past few months Ragan has sported new-found confidence, and in the last few weeks he’s become markedly more aggressive.
“Last year we kept wrecking a lot, but this year he’s learned where to draw the line….and now it’s time to get a little aggressive if we’re going to make the chase,” Fennig says.
“Bristol is not our favorite track, but David has been working hard, and hopefully we can get a good run out of Bristol, and then go to California and Richmond where we usually run better.
“David had never competed in half these tracks last year. Like Indianapolis last year was the first time he’d ever seen that place.
“But David is a quick learner. He’s very focused. And he’s listens. If he makes mistakes, I tell him Monday morning.”
Can Ragan and Fennig make the cut? “We’ve got as good a shot at getting in as any of the guys in the top 12 to 14,” Ragan says.
“We knew this season we would have the speed and we would have the team with the experience that we could be at this point at this time of the year. But we just had to make sure we didn’t make any crazy mistakes along the way.
“We have made a few mistakes. If I could go back a few races, we would be comfortably in the top-10.
“But the bottom line is we’ve had good speed, we’ve had good fortune, we haven’t made many mistakes.
“Our whole program is better from Friday to Sunday. Right to the completion of the race. We’ve been stronger, and we hit our marks on a regular basis.
“Everything is easier the second time around.
“But we’ve got three more races. There’s a lot of excitement to go…and hopefully we can outlast everybody else and get in the chase.”
Maybe this is a good night to throttle back. “I learned the hard way,” Ragan concedes. “The biggest thing that we’ve thought about this year is ‘Do we need to do anything different at the end of the race?’
“And we’ve found out—through good and bad—that you just have to put yourself in contention, and then things are going to happen for a reason.
“As long as we cruise around in that top-10 or top-five, you never know what can happen. You might get an opportunity to make a good pit decision, or you might get that good set of tires toward the end of the race and it might be a race-changing move.
“But you have to be in contention the whole race, and then in your last fuel run, your last 30 or 40 laps, that’s when you can take a few more chances.”
Here of course track position is quite important, which means pit stops are critical, especially on a tight and dangerous pit road like this one.
Last summer here Ragan started strong, qualified fourth, ran top-five the first 110 laps…but then he had a loose right-front tire after a pit stop and a green-flag pit stop cost him track position.
“After that, we seemed to lose focus,” he conceded. “The transmission was popping out of gear, and it was just one of those long nights. It all went down the drain pretty quick. Certainly disappointing.
“This is one of my favorite tracks—a lot of great fans and good racing, a place you always dream about running well. And we had a car capable of running in the top-five, if not winning.”
So the game plan this time? “This is a race where anything can happen,” Ragan says. “We just have to be aggressive. We’ll have good speed; I just have to drive a smart race.
“Here, track position is everything. You’ve got to have a car capable of running fast at the end of the race; you can’t have a car that’s beaten up.
“Even if you have a top-five car, that doesn’t mean anything 300 laps into this thing. Last year that was a prime example for us last year.
“So, where before I’d probably get upset and nervous and started driving over my head, now I don’t get too stressed out anymore. I just wait for the next pit stop.
“You’re going to have ample opportunities to adjust your car, you’re going to have plenty of opportunities to make up positions.”
Think you want the lifestyle of a NASCAR driver? Maybe not this season. “I was in Milwaukee Tuesday and Wednesday racing, then I flew back home late Wednesday night and drove up here for two appearances Thursday…and we go to Martinsville next week to test, and then go back to Milwaukee on Tuesday (to test for Loudon),” Ragan says.
“It’s good to think about the chase, and it’s good to be prepared. But it’s not good to worry yourself and get your team on pins and needles the final three races.
“Whatever happens is going to happen. Just do the best you can and we’ll live with it.”
However Ragan admits lack of job security does tend to keep him on his toes: “I never have that false sense of job security. A lot of guys get in trouble – when you feel like you can be here forever.
“Going into this weekend if I don’t perform right, if I don’t get the job done, if I make mental mistakes, I’m going to be on that border line. I have that feeling every weekend.
“Certainly last year.
“But Jack Roush stood behind me, and the guys back at the shop and Jimmy Fennig. We would struggle for a while, but then we’d bounce right back and have some top-10s and top-15s, and have a fast car.
“We knew it was around the corner, that we just had to make good decisions and try not to make mistakes.”
David Ragan (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images for NASCAR)
So any advice for newcomer Joey Logano?
“Just learn all you can from Tony (Stewart) and that situation right now,” Ragan says. “I wish I would have had that in 2006—where I could have gone to all the Cup races with Mark Martin and been around him and (crew chief) Pat Tryson. I certainly feel like I would have learned a little more.
“I’ve always had a lot of confidence…but I didn’t have the experience to back anything up. I was out there free-wheeling, running wild at times.
“But Daytona, for instance, has been a good track for us from the get-go. And after a couple of good top-fives in a row….
“Darlington was a big weekend for us, to finish in the top-five. And that was a long, tough race last year, and a tough race this year. Coming out of Darlington and saying ‘This is one of the toughest tracks on the schedule, and we conquered the place….’
“A few runs like that certainly helps you.”
The competition for the cut? Hamlin, Ragan says, “has had an up-and-down season. He’s been very, very strong a few weeks, but then he struggles a few weeks.
“The same with Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer: they’ve had fast cars some weeks, but other weeks they really seem to struggle.
“We’re part of that same situation – we’ve had good speed, we’ve been strong some weekends, and we haven’t been on others.
“That’s where we have to clean up our act.”
Clint Bowyer takes off on the Phillie Phanatic’s infamous ATV…but can Bowyer make NASCAR’s championship chase? (Photo Credit: Dover International Speedway)
THE NASCAR NOTEBOOK
So who’s got the strongest engines in NASCAR?
It might be hard to make a case against Ford’s Carl Edwards, considering he’s won two of the last three NASCAR Cup tour starts and finished second at Daytona and Indianapolis in the past few weeks.
And then Jack Roush’s number one set himself up as the man to beat in Saturday night’s Bristol 500 by winning the pole for the 8 p.m. start. A victory would be his sixth of the year, and only Toyota’s Kyle Busch, with eight, has more.
However last weekend’s NASCAR chassis dyno tests – the first of the season—and this week’s NASCAR engine dyno tests of those same motors have been somewhat inconclusive…though Roush continues to insist that Toyota has a significant technical edge in engine design.
—Kurt Busch’s Penske-Dodge showed the most horsepower at the rear wheels in Sunday’s Cup testing at Michigan, by a fairly good margin, particularly over Jimmie Johnson’s Hendrick-Chevy – maybe 20 to 21 horsepower.
—But then Jeff Burton’s Childress-Chevy apparently ‘won’ the pure engine tests two days later at NASCAR’s Concord shop.
The Michigan engine testing was the first major chassis dyno test of the season.
Kurt Busch’s car weighed in with 839 horsepower at the rear wheels, best of Sunday.
Now the rule of thumb is that numbers from a chassis dyno run are about seven percent lower than actual engine horsepower (because the chassis dyno measures output after the horsepower runs through the entire drivetrain). That would mean Busch’s true engine horsepower would be nearly 900 horsepower.
Roush says 900 might be overstating the case, but he adds that he knows of engines that have topped 875 horsepower.
(For a sport that could put on a very decent and competitive show with maybe some 600 horsepower, that raises a question – again – of why doesn’t NASCAR, particularly in these days of $4 a gallon gas, just cut cubic inches and give these teams less horsepower, rather than continue to fuel a meaningless but expensive horsepower race.)
Other key Sunday chassis dyno results (unofficial since NASCAR doesn’t publicly release the figures, despite a push by several top crew chiefs for NASCAR to release the numbers):
Jeff Burton (11th at Michigan), 830 horsepower.
Mark Martin (sixth), 827 horsepower.
Kyle Busch (race runner-up) 825 horsepower.
Carl Edwards (race winner) 819 horsepower.
Jimmie Johnson (17th), 819 horsepower.
Brian Vickers (seventh), 818 horsepower.
That’s a range of 21 horsepower.
However back in NASCAR’s Concord facility, Burton’s top-of-the-mark engine was only nine horsepower more than the weakest motor.
While that might indicate NASCAR’s road-work chassis dyno is a device which has outlived its usefulness, since NASCAR now takes engines back for more accurate in-shop testing whenever it pleases, Roush insists the chassis dyno does serve a purpose.
And Roush says Toyota still has an inherent engine design advantage, and that he has been forced to design a brand new Ford engine for next year…even though Roush says he and Ford Motor Company simply don’t have the $8 million to $12 million it would take to actually add those engines to his teams’ inventory and run them on the Cup tour.
What’s up at Rick Hendrick’s shop? That’s been a hot question all season and even hotter now, with Jeff Gordon still looking for his first win.
Doug Duchardt, Hendrick’s race track boss, said he hadn’t seen all the Michigan numbers yet so he didn’t want to talk about engine comparisons. But he didn’t seem convinced that Johnson’s engine came in at the bottom of the list in NASCAR testing. “It’s not the peak horsepower number that really matter, it’s the power range,” Duchardt pointed out. “And Kyle Busch has been complaining about Jimmie’s engines all summer.
“And one time a few years back Jack Roush’s engines tested a full 100 horsepower off Mark Cronquist’s engines – at 6000 RPM.”
Cronquist, then with Chevy, now with Toyota, is Joe Gibbs’ head engine man.
Toyota engines typically make peak horsepower at the top-end of the RPM band, around 9000 RPM; Chevy engines usually make the most power at the lower end, for more punch up off the turns. The Chevy game plan, however, has been foiled this year by Toyota, which has been using its edge in top-end power to put more downforce in the nose for better corner-entry.
And what to make of the post-race controversy that led NASCAR to suspend seven of Joe Gibbs’ Nationwide crew for trying to fudge Saturday’s post-race chassis dyno testing?
While that penalty is certainly harsh, Ford’s Jack Roush points out that despite all the NASCAR penalties dealt out in the affair, Toyota itself was not penalized…..and Roush indicated that a penalty on the manufacturer might well be deserved in this situation: because Toyota, with the dramatic success of Gibbs’ teams, is leading the manufacturers standings.
But then NASCAR has apparently never deducted points from the manufacturers’ championship standings as a penalty.
Toyota racing boss Lee White spent Friday dodging the media.
Just what did the Gibbs guys actually do at Michigan to earn NASCAR’s wrath?
They slipped a kitchen refrigerator magnet under the throttle pedal, after the race and just before NASCAR’s dyno test. The object was to keep the throttle from going all the way to the floor.
According to those watching, the deception was discovered when a Gibbs crewman dived into the car ostensibly to retrieve a notebook.
An official noticed the magnet, but was initially unaware of its purpose.
According to some rivals keeping tabs on the whole issue, the reported cover story might have worked if it had been better rehearsed: the story was that, since Gibbs uses a throttle cable rather than the standard throttle rod system, the Gibbs crews would put a magnet under the pedal in order to keep a driver from overstretching the cable…and that if the driver felt he needed more throttle response, he could then simply kick the magnet out of the way. However when a NASCAR official asked one of Gibbs’ drivers about the magnet, the driver was clueless.
Needless to say, Gibbs men and Toyota executives are not in the mood for any jokes about ‘high-tech’ kitchen magnets.
Some rivals, however, have been quick to praise – quietly, of course – the Gibbs’ innovation.
Bruton Smith has just finished installing more soft-walls at his Las Vegas Motor Speedway, in response to Jeff Gordon’s savage crash.
Now Bobby Labonte, after his nasty crash at Watkins Glen two weeks ago, says it’s time for that track to install safer soft-walls in that section of the New York road course.
And Jeff Burton agrees: “We have access to soft-wall technology…but soft-wall technology only works if we put it up. Every other race track, I believe, except for maybe Sonoma, has soft-walls…and it’s time for Watkins Glen to follow suit. The technology doesn’t help us if it’s not up.”
In the incident Michael McDowell clipped David Gilliland coming out of the final right-hand corner onto the frontstraight, knocking Gilliland into the outside wall, protected in part by a tire barrier. Gilliland’s car bounced off that tire barrier back onto the track, triggering a huge melee.
“If that part of the outside wall had been a soft-wall,” Labonte says, “that car probably wouldn’t have bounced back so much.
“So it’s time for that track to install a soft-wall right there.”
“There was a huge rebound effect,” Burton said. “Now I don’t like to speculate…but there was a huge rebound effect. And we have access to safer technology, and we should implement it.”
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