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

Jul 2, 2013, 7:16 PM EDT

David Ragan celebrates his win two months ago at Talladega. Getty Images

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.”

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