He drove through the Alabama darkness, the superspeedway at Talladega empty, the unexpected party in Victory Lane already raging. Moments after David Ragan, who is a member of the low-budget team of Front Row Motorsports and who had only one career victory in 227 starts, took the checkered flag in the rain-delayed Sprint Cup race on Sunday evening, he performed the customary burnout on the frontstretch. Then he motored toward the winner's circle?only he didn't know how to get there.
A NASCAR official told Ragan to stop on pit road, directed him to put his No. 34 Ford in reverse, and then showed him the route to Victory Lane. It wasn't surprising that Ragan was unsure of where to celebrate, because not even Ragan ? who entered the race 28th in the standings and didn't have a single top-10 finish in nine starts this season ? thought he'd win on Sunday night.
But at NASCAR's restrictor-plate duo of Talladega and Daytona, there are no upset winners anymore. The plates in the carburetors are the great equalizers, allowing the Have-Not teams to compete with the Haves. How big of an underdog is Front Row? Entering Sunday owner Bob Jenkins had made 403 Cup starts and had zero victories and only four-top ten finishes. So you could understand why Jenkins was positively elated in Victory Lane. The second-place finisher was another Front Row driver, David Gilliland, who hadn't finished in the top 20 in any race in 2013 but was able to draft with Ragan on the final lap and push him to victory. "It's a true David vs. Goliath story," Ragan said. "I couldn't be more proud to play my own role."
"We're up against it every week," added Gilliland. "There's weeks we don't have enough tires to put on our car so we've got to put scuffs on and everything else and race against guys that have stickers. We're just continuing to build."
What was the big takeaway from Sunday's race at Talladega, which was punctuated by a three-hour, 36-minute rain delay and was finished in gathering darkness? That anything can happen -- and anyone can win -- at NASCAR's biggest and fastest track. The final laps at 'Dega are annually among the most arresting of the season, and that was again the case on Sunday, as Ragan shot through the field over the last five miles like he had an extra gear of speed to steal the win. It will likely be the last time in 2013 you'll see him contend for the checkers.
Here are four other things we learned on a rainy, dark day at Talladega:
1. Matt Kenseth flashed considerable muscle under the hood.
The most dominant car in the field on Sunday belonged to Kenseth, who led 109 of the 192 laps. Kenseth held the lead on the final green-white-checkered re-start, but lost the draft and finished eighth. Kenseth was equally stout at Daytona in February -- he led a race high 86 laps but blew an engine late -- and he should be considered the favorite when the circuit winds back to Daytona in July and to Talladega in October.
Through 10 races in 2013, Kenseth has led more total laps this season (764) than any other driver and more than he did in all of 2012 (480). Kenseth was hit with a 50-point penalty after NASCAR discovered an illegal part in his engine after he won at Kansas Speedway on April 21 -- his team, Joe Gibbs Racing, is appealing the penalty, which will be heard on May 8 -- and he's currently 11th in the standings. But according to many of the rank-and-file in the garage who I've developed relationships with over years, Kenseth right now is one of handful of drivers that appears capable of winning the Cup in November (the others are Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, and Kyle Busch).
"Our performance has been nothing short of spectacular all year," Kenseth said. "I feel really good about where we are at."
2. Denny Hamlin got lucky.
As Denny Hamlin climbed into his No. 11 FedEx Camry that was parked on pit road on Sunday afternoon before the start of the race, he grimaced noticeably as he settled into the cockpit. Hamlin had been sidelined ever since he crashed into the wall at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., on March 24 and fractured a vertebra. Hamlin missed five straight races and fell from sixth to 29th in the standings.
Hamlin couldn't afford to miss any more starts if he was going to have a chance at qualifying for the Chase, and doctors cleared him earlier in the week to compete at Talladega. After starting seventh, Hamlin dropped to the rear of the field. With Tony Stewart and Michael Waltrip driving close to Hamlin and offering him a wall of protection, Hamlin avoided trouble while staying on the lead lap.
Then, on lap 23, the caution flag waved after Trevor Bayne blew an engine. Hamlin drove onto pit road, turned off the ignition, yanked off the steering well, popped open the roof hatch, pulled himself out of the cockpit, and stepped off the car. Brain Vickers, his backup driver, then slid into the seat. The driver swap took about 60 seconds and Vickers stayed on the lead lap. "Everything feels good," Vickers said over the radio to the team as he drove back onto the track.
But it didn't for long. Just minutes later, Vickers got caught up in a Big One -- the multi-car wrecks that Daytona and Talladega are famous for producing -- and hit the wall hard. Sixteen cars were involved in the wreck, which was triggered when Kyle Busch bumped into the rear of Kasey Kahne's No. 5 Chevy. Vickers wasn't hurt, but would Hamlin have walked away if he'd been in the cockpit? No one knows. But since Hamlin started the race, he did earn the 10 points for Vickers' 34th-place finish.
Hamlin should be back in the No. 11 Toyota on Saturday night at Darlington Raceway. He expects to complete the entire race. "Every week I feel a lot better and this really is the best I've felt physically in gosh, months since I felt this good," Hamlin said after he got out of the car on Sunday. "So I'm definitely looking forward to going back to full competition next week."
3. The quality of racing at 'Dega was high.
The season-opener at Daytona featured long lengths of follow-the-leader, parade-style racing. It was the first restrictor-plate in the new Gen-Six car, and the drivers complained that, while a faster car could reach the rear-bumper of slower car in front of him, he couldn't make the pass because he'd be thwarted by a pocket of air coming off the leading car.
That wasn't an issue at Talladega, where as soon as the green flag dropped, the drivers charged three and (in some instances) four-wide around the 2.66-mile tri-oval. NASCAR didn't change the rules package from Daytona, which gave the teams and their engineers more than two months to tweak their setups and figure out how to manipulate the aerodynamics of the new car on the superspeedways. The cars handled so well on Sunday that drivers were able to make aggressive, daring passes.
"It seems a little bit different than Daytona, where everybody was in one late," said Trevor Bayne, who blew an engine early and finished 43rd. "At least a couple of lanes seem to be working where you can pass."
Through ten races it's clear that the Gen-Six car is a step in the right direction for NASCAR. While fans complained last year that the racing was often boring because it was so hard for the drivers to pass, that hasn't been a major issue in 2013, which was illustrated again on Sunday -- even as darkness descended on the track in the closing laps.
4. Danica Patrick made one best moves of the season.
With a Big One unfolding directly in front of her on lap 44, Patrick, who was on the high-line, instinctively dove to the inside of the track. Nine cars were spinning and smoking in front her, shedding sheet metal and sending sparks flying into the air. But Patrick threaded a narrow path through the destruction, eventually driving onto the infield grass. It was an impressive display of car control and anticipation, and she emerged unscathed.
"That was sketchy," Patrick said over the radio after the navigating through the wreckage.
Patrick wasn't as lucky late in the race, when she did get collected in a wreck. She finished 33rd, but it was another important day of learning for the rookie driver. Look for her to contend for her first win when series stops at Daytona in early July -- the next plate track on the schedule and where Patrick captured the pole and led laps in February.