A Tale of Three Drivers

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Earnhardt, Harvick and Ragan optimistic after solid runs in Charlotte

Earnhardt, Harvick and Ragan optimistic after solid runs in Charlotte

by Vito Pugliese

Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 was its typical showcase of endurance, stamina and mechanical frailty — peppered with an F-bomb — and the cries of favoritism and foul luck for NASCAR’s most popular driver. Also on display during the course of the final few laps were three drives who will prove to be pivotal players throughout the 2011 season, as well as determine the Sprint Cup landscape for 2012.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
As the field stacked up, trying to avoid the rapidly decelerating No. 4 Toyota of Kasey Kahne, on the lap 400 final restart, it appeared that Dale Earnhardt Jr. would finally break the string of 105 races without a win and all would once again be right in the Banana Republic known as Junior Nation.

Halfway down the backstretch on the white flag lap, amongst the debris being shed from Brad Keselowski’s clobbered Dodge, the No. 88 Chevrolet drew its knees into its chest, gasped one last breath of air and atomized Sunoco Green E15 race fuel, falling silent. Coming out of Turn 4, the sad reality set in that on Memorial Day Weekend, the National Guard would be denied a win for the second time in five hours – and 1,103 miles.

As his car coasted across the finish line, Dale Jr.’s first comments were, “What’d we end up, seventh? Eh, that’s ‘aiiight.’” As Steve Letarte apologized across the radio for being 500 feet short, Earnhardt tried to reassure his crestfallen crew chief, imploring him to “be proud, man, be proud.”

It is a far cry from the traffic heard across the airwaves the previous two seasons. Gone are the days of constant bickering and resentment and the suggestions that he was laying down on the job. Earnhardt has matured more as a driver and a leader in the past five months than the previous five years combined.

If fans were expecting a Kurt Busch-esque tirade across the radio, they would be highly disappointed in Earnhardt’s post-race interview. If they were expecting an old-school “It-don’t-mean-$***-Right-Now-Daddy’s-Done-Won-Here-Ten-Times” blast, they’d be even more taken aback by his reasoning that if they had won, it would have been “a gift.” For those that have lamented that Earnhardt isn’t anything like his late father, they may want to take a second look. He is clearly serious about not just winning, but winning consistently.

One win won’t erase the ills and missteps of the past several seasons, but it will serve as a stepping stone to making him relevant in statistics other than souvenir sales, as well as getting what was the former No. 24 team back to the level it was in 2007, when Jeff Gordon posted six wins, 30 top-10 finishes and would have won the championship by over 350 points had the standard points system been in play.

Junior’s Outlook: Gets a win prior to the Chase, qualifies for Chase, wins a race in Chase, finishes fifth in final standings. Nobody will notice because they will be either fawning over Jimmie Johnson’s sixth title or a monumental meltdown that sees his drive ending at five.

Kevin Harvick
On the opposite end of the Coke 600 spectrum is Kevin Harvick, who has well earned the nickname “The Closer.” Many — think Greg Biffle, Bobby Hamilton Sr., Joe Nemechek, Ricky Rudd, Joey Logano, Carl Edwards and Kyle Bush —have bestowed other, less flattering nicknames for Harvick, a guy who thrives on being in the center of controversy.

It has been a remarkable turnaround for a driver who most had all but written off as returning to Richard Childress Racing following a 2009 season that had him openly feuding with his team — and team owner — over the radio during the race.

It had been a fall from grace of sorts for Harvick, who went through a dry spell not quite unlike Earnhardt’s. If not for the controversial end to the 2007 Daytona 500, it would have been over three years since Harvick had won a race as the 2010 season began. However, a contract extension with RCR (when all other options dried up) turned things around. Since the start of the 2010 season, Harvick has made a habit of leading the right laps to win races – i.e., the last few.

A quick check of the laps lead of his last seven wins tells the tale:

2011: Auto Club Speedway: 1 lap led; Martinsville: 6; Charlotte: 2
2010: Talladega: 2 laps led; Daytona: 28; Michigan: 60
2007: Daytona: 4 laps led

Not exactly Jimmie Johnson-like domination, but that kind of opportunism — where Harvick and team find a way to put themselves in a position to win — is exactly what championship-winning teams have a knack of doing.

Don’t get me wrong – Harvick is far from the feel-good cheerleader. He still routinely lambastes his team on the radio if the car is not up to snuff immediately, and will probably rub another 10 drivers the wrong way over the course of his career. Say what you will, though, when it’s all said and done, Harvick has the hardware: Daytona 500, Coke 600 and Brickyard 400 wins; two Nationwide Series titles; a pair of Camping World Truck Series title as an owner. And if things keep going the way they are, a Cup title in 2011 is a distinct possibility.

Not bad for a guy who was all but considered unretainable a year and a half ago.

Harvick’s Outlook: Wins two more regular-season races leading less than 10 laps combined. Easily makes the Chase as regular-season points leader, but falls just shy of a Cup once again.

David Ragan
It seems like yesterday when David Ragan was being derided by Tony Stewart as “a dart with no feathers” at Martinsville — but that day was actually over five years ago. Ragan has been a work in progress of sorts, though most organizations usually don’t wait half a decade for talent to come around, particularly when they are piloting what once was the flagship car of an organization entering it’s 24th season of Sprint Cup competition.

Ragan was tabbed to replace Mark Martin in the Roush Fenway No. 6 Ford for the 2007 season. His first act of defiance was losing control in one of the Daytona 500 qualifying races while getting up to speed after exiting pit road and running head on into the backstretch wall. Ragan’s sophomore season faired a bit better, barely missing the Chase, and he was an odds-on pick to make it for sure in 2009, as well as secure his first of many career victories. While he did win a pair of Nationwide Series races, Ragan floundered on the Cup side, dropping to 27th in points, albeit during a time when Roush Fenway had no idea that its simulation software was engineered on a Commodore 64 and apparently metric.

The 2010 season wasn’t much better, with only three top 10s to the 6 car’s credit and an anemic ranking of 23rd in the final points standings.

This year was off to yet another lackluster start, and rumors began to pick up that this was Ragan’s make-or-break season – odd, considering the previous two would have broken pretty much any other driver not named Jamie McMurray. His first top 10 of the year was at Martinsville – the same track where Stewart’s radio transmission became favored fodder for many in the media. He followed up with a pole a week later at Texas Motor Speedway and another top-10 run.

Momentum?

The good times kept rolling after the requisite Talladega crash took him out halfway through the event with a fourth-place finish at Richmond. While the team did fall off at Dover and Darlington (after peeling off the side of Brian Vickers’ car like a can of sardines), something seemed to click at Charlotte. He was fast from the get go on All-Star weekend, winning the Sprint Showdown. He was steady all night during the Coca-Cola 600 – narrowly missing out on winning his first career race at a track and event that favors first-timers. Had eventual race winner Kevin Harvick not received pushing assistance from teammate Paul Menard (who was not supposed to be behind Harvick in the running order) under caution, Ragan would have likely won by default had the No. 29 ran dry in its pursuit of Earnhardt.

So what does this all mean for the second-generation Cup driver from Georgia? Right now, not a whole lot. Ragan needs to win this year, and potentially make the Chase to secure his services at Roush Fenway Racing next season.

Rumors now have sponsor UPS pushing hard to get Carl Edwards down with brown, and Ragan may have further competition internally for his seat from current Roush-affiliated driver and Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne, as well as Roush Nationwide pilot Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who has emerged as one of the two or three fastest rising starts in stock car racing.

After five years, now is the time for Ragan to deliver on the potential and history of success the No. 6 car has historically known. It was the foundation upon which Jack Roush built his racing empire, after all, and if Ragan can’t deliver this season, he might be the Jenga block that gets removed.

Ragan’s Outlook: Wins a race in 2011, but it will be too-little, too-late, as Ragan is replaced by either Bayne or Stenhouse in a No. 6 car that is adorned with new decals in 2012.
 

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<p> <span style="font-size: 12px;">Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 told the tale of a trio of drivers all at dramatically different points in their careers. Athlon Sports contributor Vito Pugliese explains, and charts their course for the rest of the season.</span></p>

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