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Can NASCAR put Kentucky in the rear view mirror and move on down the road?

  If it's New Hampshire, bring on the lobster....and wonder if Clint Bowyer isn't looking for a little revenge here this weekend for that deal last fall....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern



   Okay, forget the Kentucky traffic….for a while at least.
   That mess will be playing out for a while. In fact NASCAR president Mike Helton is expected to address last weekend's traffic morass here Friday morning, before Sprint Cup teams take to the track. 
   Perhaps Helton will also take time to point out that drivers and teams shouldn't be boasting to the world, via Twitter, how they got home to North Carolina before most Kentucky fans even got out to the Interstate Saturday night.

   Most fans don't have helicopters and private jets.
     But meanwhile down here in the trenches, let's consider some more basic stuff – like David Ragan.
   Is he going to keep his driving job with team owner Jack Roush next season?
   Will UPS continue sponsorship of Ragan?
   Did Ragan's Daytona win --- and, gosh, that seems ages ago now – clinch the deal for 2012?
   Well, Ragan's own perspective seems to be that he needs to make the playoffs, in eight weeks, and have some shot at the championship, to be assured that everything will be cool for next season.
   Ragan has been working for Roush since he got tabbed in 2007 to take over Mark Martin's ride, when Martin decided to move on after 19 years with Roush.
   Picking Ragan was a surprising call.
   And Ragan has had a fitful few seasons on the stock car tour.
   This season, however, Ragan finally appears to be hitting his stride, at long last.
   "Jack gave me an opportunity I probably didn't deserve, being a young kid, not having a full Nationwide season or full Truck season under my belt, when  promoted to the number 6 car in '07," the Georgia driver says.  "He probably went out on a limb.
    "Jack said 'Hey, you don't have any experience, you're very raw…we're going to keep working.'
   "He saw I had a lot of driving force to go out and do a good job…a lot of pressure I put on myself.


   A heck of a crowd last weekend at Kentucky Speedway. And a Texas-size traffic jam (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    "I always had confidence I was the guy…There for a while I did tear a lot of stuff up and made some bad decisions; but the last couple of years we weren't really fast enough to tear anything up. 
   "We were just slow.  We didn't compete as well as we should have; that's not something I can go turn around.
    "And he certainly put me with some good people over the years."
    Ah, that could be an issue. Ragan has had a number of crew chiefs so far. Right now he's with Drew Blickensderfer….who, remember, won the Daytona 500 with Matt Kenseth two years ago.

   So has David Ragan finally made it over the hump? Did that Daytona win clinch his deal with Jack Roush and sponsorship UPS?
   "That's between the management and UPS…and I think they're going well," the 25-year-old Ragan says of contract negotiations.
   "I look forward to some good things to come down the road, but I try not to worry about that.  All I can think about is doing my job on the track.
   "I've got faith that everything is going to work out well."
   It's been several years now since Ragan hit the Sprint Cup tour and promptly got tagged by Tony Stewart as "a dart without feathers."
   And Ragan has matured.
   On the track he's been solid this season, after several erratic years. And off the track he's kept cool and loose, despite the enormous pressure – remember this is the guy Roush picked, in a surprise, to take Mark Martin's ride when Martin decided to move on after nearly 20 years with Roush.
   Roush certainly has an odd roster of drivers. Wild and crazy Carl Edwards. Iceman Matt Kenseth. Fast and loose Greg Biffle (this week with a new crew chief, after several weeks of sagging fortunes). And Ragan.
   Edwards, at 31, is in his prime. Kenseth, 10 years on the tour now, and the 2003 champion, is the team's elder statements. Biffle, nearly 10 years too with Roush, is starting to press, it seems.
   If Biffle and Edwards are in the same mold, then Ragan may be a bit like Kenseth, cool and calculating, rather than flashy and bold.


   The smile of victory: David Ragan at Daytona (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Still, it's hard to tag Ragan yet, even after several seasons on the tour.
    First, he's still pretty darned young.
    Second, the Roush operation went through a rough 18 months when its teams weren't all that competitive.
    But since last July things have turned, and so have things for Ragan.
    What has Roush been telling Ragan during this ragged stretch?
   "Jack tells you just to focus and don't mess up," Ragan says. "He always reminds you 'Don't mess up.'
   "Jack told me a long time ago 'You're the driver of the number 6 car.  You're young, you've got talent…and that's why you're here. So just remember that and don't think about 'What happens if I get shuffled to another team? What happens if I get let go? What happens if I get injured? 
    "'Don't think about that stuff. Just get caught up in the moment and do your deal, and it's all going to work out.'
    "So I've tried to stay focused on our goals, long-term and short-term…focused on the next race…
    "Don't worry about everything else that's going on in the world; just focus on that race car, and it'll take care of you."
    Interesting advice.
    And in these tough economic times – Roush, remember, just lost multi-million-dollar sponsor Diageo (which is apparently taking its money to Indianapolis Motor Speedway to sponsor next year's Brickyard 400) – that may be very interesting advice, considering the big UPS deal is on the line.
    Remember the big picture here: Denny Hamlin drives for rival FedEx, and Hamlin nearly won last season's NASCAR championship. Hence speculation that UPS might be looking around...
    So Ragan may well have to make the playoffs to keep the sponsorship. That means the next eight weeks could make-or-break things for Ragan.
    If so, well, he concedes this weekend's New Hampshire 300 might be one to forget.
   "Loudon…we're horrible," Ragan says. "It may be one of our worst tracks.
   "We've had some better runs, but it just seems like a lot of crazy things happen. 
    "So we can't make mistakes.  I can't knock the fenders off it.  I can't miss a shift and blow an engine, or cut a tire.
    "We've got to be on our game."
    Certainly Ragan and crew chief Drew Blickensderfer can't complain about speed this season. Roush's Fords have been some of the fastest cars on the tour.
    "Our cars are very fast, and I feel we're on a roll," Ragan says optimistically.
    "Sometimes good momentum is very contagious…just like bad momentum is contagious, hard to shake off."
    To get an idea of what to expect from Ragan here, consider the two sister tracks, Phoenix and Richmond. He crashed at Phoenix but finished fourth at Richmond.
   Something positive for the weekend ahead.
   Ragan's time with crew chief Jimmy Fennig was up and down. Fennig is old school, and sometimes a man of few words.
   "Jimmy and I had a good relationship to begin with," Ragan says. "But he had a little different way of communicating than I did.
   "I needed something a little bit more in-depth…
   "You have to go through some guys to find that sweet spot.
    "And it's not only the driver and crew chief have to get along, the crew chief has to have a good line of communication with the crew guys, the team engineers and the other teammates.
   "Drew and I have found that good combination. We both believe in each other.  He's definitely got some ways that he does things a little different than some of the other guys in the organization.
   "But that's what makes him special and unique."


  NASCAR's Mike Helton (L), with Mr. Kentucky, Darrell Waltrip. Nice crowd for the Cup debut....but what about that traffic? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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