It was an uplifting two weeks at Charlotte Motor Speedway for David Ragan -- the best two weeks he's had in five Sprint Cup seasons. He won the Showdown to qualify for the Sprint All-Star Race and finished a career-high second in the Coca-Cola 600.
It wasn't a spike in Ragan's performance trend line. He's had four top-8 finishes in the past seven regular season races. Ragan was eighth at Martinsville, seventh at Texas and fourth at Richmond.
But Charlotte was a breakthrough. He'd finished third three times, once in 2007 and twice in 2008. The next two seasons were difficult, devoid of a top-5 and only five top-10s, and a slide in the points from 13th in 2008 to 27th in '09 and 24th in '10. Ragan has turned it around in 2011, with two top-5s and four top-10s in 12 races. He's 18th in the points.
"I feel we've been as close (to winning) as we've been in two years," Ragan said. "We have some power race tracks in the next month. I think we've got a great chance to run well at Kansas. Drew (crew chief Blickensderfer) and I got a chance to work together there last year and it should fit well with the Roush cars.
"It wouldn't be a surprise to see us in position to win at Michigan and Pocono. We have a lot of confidence in our race cars and we need to work on not making mistakes."
Ragan drives for Roush Fenway Racing, where they expect to win races. He was promoted to Cup in 2007 by Jack Roush after running 19 races with one top-5 in the Camping World Truck Series in 2006. Roush elevated Ragan based upon an evaluation of his potential from a stable of development drivers within the team and he was willing to be patient to allow Ragan to develop.
Ragan's progress was right on track through 2008, when he had six top-5s and 14 top-10s.
The entire Roush Fenway team went into a decline in 2009 and for most of 2010. Greg Biffle (64), Carl Edwards (70) and Matt Kenseth (76) went through extended winless streaks. But they all still managed to make the Chase in 2010, Edwards and Biffle were in it in 2009 and it masked the fact the team wasn't the front running, race-winning operation it had been in previous seasons.
Ragan's No. 6 Ford struggled more than his teammates' and it was largely viewed as being an isolated problem within Roush Fenway.
"It's a pretty legit way of calling it," Ragan said. "The way we ran wasn't up to our standards. Three of the best drivers in the garage had 70-race winless streaks. We had a couple of crew chief changes on our UPS team and we suffered the most. The spotlight was shining on us a little more, the pressure was on us. We're back to racing with (teammates), qualifying with them, and it does feel good to be back up there."
Blickensderfer joined Ragan with six races remaining last season. They've had six top-10s in 18 races. Ford's new FR9 engine has developed impressively and Roush Fenway has been building better cars. The crew chief, engine and cars are part of Ragan's resurgence and he's also making strides as a driver.
"I'm learning more and more in working with the crew chief," Ragan said. "I've got a better feel for what we need in the car in practice, in happy hour from the start of the race to the end of the race. I'm not making as many mistakes as I have before. We're qualifying better. I'm doing a better job of going through the whole weekend better.
"The RCR engines (from Earnhardt Childress) have been the best over the last few years. Ford brought out the FR9 and took its time to do it right and work through things. The engines are making great power and are very durable. It's a home run. I think they're better at some of the tracks (than RCR), but I wouldn't switch for anything from the FR9.
"I think we've built our race cars lighter (allowing better weight distribution with ballast) and we're understanding the (suspension) geometry. Our engineering staff has done a good job of catching up."
Ragan's contract with Roush Fenway runs through 2013, but the team's agreement with sponsor UPS ends following this season. Ragan understands sponsors want to win races and run up front.
"Certainly, you're concerned about the year going forward," Ragan said. "It does put some extra pressure on. I feel good about the situation. I love UPS as a sponsor. They do a great job activating the sponsorship with their employee-owners.
"I think we control our own destiny. We need to get top-5s and poles and I think everything will be good. We look forward to keeping UPS happy and going forward. The best is yet to come."
Roush Fenway has won three of 12 races, two with Kenseth and one with Edwards. Biffle can be expected to win a race or two this season, too. Ragan has to prove he can make that last, demanding step to victory, but everything points that he is capable. At 25 years old, the one-time project seems on the verge of prospering.