By Cory Mccartney
May 05, 2011

His season began with heartbreaking disappointment after a mistake cost him a chance to win the Daytona 500. But David Ragan isn't about to let his year be defined by that gaffe.

"I thought about it the weeks after and after watching replays and talking about it," he said. "It's something that we've moved on [from]. It doesn't bother me too much any more. It gives us motivation to move on and the sooner we can get top-5s and poles and win a race it will be easier to forget about it."

Still, it's an incident that's certain to be a part of the lore of the Great American Race. Ragan led the field on the first green-white-checkered restart, but switched lanes before the start/finish line, an illegal move that drew a black flag by NASCAR and forced him to move to the back of the lead lap. He wound up 14th.

As much as he can, Ragan has rebounded. In three of the last four stops, the driver of the No. 6 Ford has finished in the top-8, including a fourth-place last Saturday night at Richmond. In that span Ragan also earned the pole at Texas -- his first in 153 races -- and went on to lead 11 laps, tying his career high.

"Absolutely," he answers when asked if he feels he's on the verge of a breakthrough in this, his fifth full-time Sprint Cup Series season. "I feel like there's no reason we can't continue this if not get better."

You could credit Ragan's current hot streak to the FR9 engine, Ford and Roush Yates Engines' collaboration which has resulted in three wins and 23 total top-10s among all the Ford teams through nine races. You could point to the pressure of trying to perform for primary sponsor UPS, whose contract with Ragan's employer, Roush Fenway Racing, expires at the end of the year.

But according to Ragan, it's simply a matter of things coming together after two seasons to forget.

"I feel like the cars are a lot faster than what we had last year and the pit crew is stronger with the changes that we made in the offseason," he said. "We've been able to execute what we've come to do."

Before this season, the 25-year-old was facing more than a few questions about his progress. In 2008, Ragan raked in 14 top-10s, including six top-5s, and finished 13th in the standings in just his second season. It looked as though Jack Roush had his next star after move Ragan up to the Cup series full-time rather quickly after 38 combined races in NASCAR's top three circuits in three years. But he regressed in '09 and '10 with five top-10s and he finished 27th and 24th, respectively in the standings.

It's those woes, and the affiliation of the driver who did wind up Victory Lane at Daytona, that made things even worse for Ragan. Trevor Bayne is also a Roush Fenway driver, though he has basically been on loan to Wood Brothers Racing this year, and there were whispers that Bayne, 20, could eventually replace Ragan in the No. 6. Ragan heard the talk, and he says it's nothing new.

"You hear rumors like that often," he said. "Unless you're a Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart, you're always going to have some of that. From my first year when I got brought up real quick from the Truck series I heard that different guys were going to take my ride and that I was going to lose my ride here and there. I've taken that as motivation to keep going and I always felt like in this sport nothing is certain. I've got confidence in our team and Jack stands behind me.

"You've always got some members of the media or different fans, they like to find that new story that can be interesting. We just try to stay focused with what's in front of us and obviously performance is what keeps everybody quiet, so as long as we can keep running good, that certainly helps."

It also helps that Ragan is under contract at Roush Fenway through the 2013 season.

"I think that to myself," he said. "But it's one of those deals where if I try to defend what people are saying or get into arguments about any information that is misleading or something they don't have right, I'm as much of a culprit for doing that as they are for putting out information they don't know about. I try to just keep quiet and do my job."

That's seemingly become all the more easier since Drew Blickensderfer took over as his crew chief late last season. Blickensderfer, who had previously been with Matt Kenseth in the Cup series and Carl Edwards in Nationwide, joined with Ragan on Sept. 23, becoming the No. 6's third pit boss in a year. They've since combined for five top-10s and have eight top-10 starting positions.

After a two-year detour Ragan seems on track to live up to the promise he flashed in '08. He says the next step in his progression is minimizing mistakes, but he firmly believes that he and his team have already overcome the biggest obstacles.

"The whole effort has to go smoothly all weekend," he said. "But I think the hardest point is behind and that's getting fast, competitive race cars and now we've got that and it's just a matter of trying to do our job."

That continues Saturday night at Darlington, where Ragan already has a top-5 to his credit from '08.

"We've always had decent cars there; I enjoy going down there but it's always a challenge," Ragan said. "It's one of the toughest tracks on the circuit and one of the hardest tracks to run a clean race and a smart race."

Is Darlington really too tough to tame? Try telling that to a pair of Hall of Famers.

10, 12 --David Pearson's wins and poles, respectively, at Darlington. His wins are three more than any current driver (Jeff Gordon has seven) and the poles are seven more than Bill Elliott's five, the best by an active driver.

2,648 -- Laps led by Dale Earnhardt Sr. at the track. That's 928 more than Gordon's 1,720, which are the most among today's Cup contingent.

Denny Hamlin. Has Hamlin turned the corner? He was sensational at Richmond, winning his own late model charity race and the Nationwide, then came in second to teammate Kyle Busch in the Cup race. Now the real feat comes in what he does after the potential momentum-changing weekend. Luckily for him he gets to dance with a certain Lady in Black. Hamlin won last season at Darlington, has a combined four top-10s in five starts and his 6.6 average finish is the series' best. He could go along way toward silencing any doubters by returning to Victory Lane in South Carolina.

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