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Underdogs Win Talladega! Can Bob Jenkins milk this surprise?

Underdogs Win Talladega! Can Bob Jenkins milk this surprise?

David Ragan! (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



   By Mike Mulhern

   Hey now, how about that David Ragan!
   And, well, how about that other guy, Regan Smith, too.....
   Pretty darned good weekend for the Ragans/Regans.
   It shouldn't be too hard to tell these guys apart, though people do, even journalists:
  "Regan and I joke about that a lot," Ragan was saying Sunday evening, in the darkness after his scintillating win in the Talladega 500. 
   "We're similar age and we're friends, but we couldn't be from the farthest part of the country.  He's from upstate New York and I'm from south Georgia, and there is nothing similar about those two parts of the United States. So we joke about that."

    And perhaps they've got a bit different personalities too.
    Smith, the guy who denied a 500 win here a few years back in that deal with Tony Stewart, and the guy who rebounded to win the Southern 500, is this season a full-time Nationwide driver, for Dale Earnhardt Jr, and part-time Sprint Cup driver, for James Finch.
    Earnhardt concedes Smith has a bit of a temper at times on the track, which he may need to tame.

    If Ragan has a temper, well, it's hard to see. He's almost a David Pearson/Matt Kenseth kind of driver.
    But David Ragan was certainly a man on a mission those last two laps.
    And so was Regan Smith, in the final moments of Saturday's Nationwide thriller: "Coming down the backstretch I thought 'Aw, we're going to take fifth or sixth.'
    "I can't even tell you the order of the guys who were leading. I just saw cars at that point.
    "They got all jammed up, we had a run, and I made a move. I wasn't really sure if I was clear, but I figured it was the only chance I had to win the race.
    "I wanted to make that move to see if it was going to pay off for us, and it did."
    It was a heck of a move, a dive through traffic from the high side to the inside, across two lanes.
    Suddenly Smith was three-wide with Kasey Kahne and Joey Logano....and then the caution, for a crash just behind them. NASCAR threw the yellow, but rather than letting the three drag race to the finish line down in the first turn, officials called the finish at the moment of the yellow, with the three still several hundred yards away.
    No one knew how NASCAR would rule on the winner. Kahne, first at the line, figured he'd won, since NASCAR typically lets drivers race it out on the final lap. But after reviewing video, Regan Smith got the nod.
   Sunday evening, again the race finishing in darkness, seven hours after the start, the finishing sprint was again dicey. But Ragan was decisively in front at the line.

    Could you pick Ragan out in a crowd? Good 'ol number 34?
    Well, he's polished country boy from south Atlanta, Unadilla. Seven years on the stock car tour now. Solid. But few headlines.
   And Bob Jenkins, his car owner, keeps the paint crew working on sponsorship decaling. Here he was driving a car sponsored by, um, Farm Rich. Next week it's Peanut Patch. CSX was on the car last week. Love's Travel Stops was on Gilliland's quarterpanels.
    Sponsorship is a scramble.

    How'd he do it? "I wouldn't want to line up and have to do it again," Ragan said, still a bit breathless even an hour after the finish.
   "When we took the green, we were running 10th, and the outside lane today had been a little bit better all day long.  Got a good restart.  I don't know what happened on that first lap, but coming around we took the white I was pushing Aric Almirola, and he jumped to the outside of Matt Kenseth getting into turn 1... and I didn't want to be on the top lane going down the back straightaway. The top lane hadn't served well enough down the back straightaway.
    "And Matt had been the class of the field all day, so when I saw him right in front of me, I decided to stick with him.
    "I thought maybe we could get a good run and race for the win out of turn four; but I didn't know at the time David was hooked to my rear bumper."
    When that registered, "that gave me a little extra confidence coming out of turn two. We were probably fourth or fifth, and if I could make the right moves I knew he was going to stick with me. 
    "Carl was leading; he tried to block Matt, which allowed me a clean hole on the bottom. So I went low.
    "Carl didn't see me coming quick enough, or we had such a fast run, I was able to get position on him.
    "I don't know still how David had such a good run. He was just pushing me unbelievably through three and four."

     What Ragan and Jenkins can parlay out of this victory is tough to visualize. But for this small-budget team, Front Row Motorsports, every little bit helps. And it certainly helps that this was a solid team victory, for Ragan and Gilliland.
    First, the win puts Ragan in the All-Star race at Charlotte in two weeks.
   "We try to sell Front Row Motorsports," Ragan says. "And it's tough to sell a team that we run 15th or 20th or 25th; we're not battling for a championship. It's tough to do that. So it means a lot to be in our AllStar event."
    Underdog teams in NASCAR these days are invisible. Top dogs dominate TV coverage. Star drivers get the big sponsors.
    So it will be interesting to see what NASCAR's vaunted marketing operation may do with this victory.

    With the odds so stacked against him each weekend, why in the world is Bob Jenkins even sitting down at this poker table?
    "There are a lot of owners who get the best available driver they can get, and they're like a hired gun," Jenkins says, the words rushing out in a torrent. "But the thing that makes our team different than some of the rest is we're so close; more than anything we're friends.
    "And I know I've got drivers who are capable of winning races.  I've got guys at the shop who have the heart to win races.  We just haven't always had the resources."
    Gilliland, for example, remember, once had a primo ride with Doug Yates, and that stellar run at Sonoma -- he's a great road racer -- should have opened doors to good sponsors. But for whatever reason, those doors didn't open.
   Since then, Gilliland has been a journeyman, working hard to keep his niche in the sport.

    "David Ragan bought into what we were trying to do at Front Row, and the thing that makes him so different from a lot of other drivers is his expectations of himself and his team never changed," Jenkins says.
   "He didn't look at it as if 'Hey, I'm taking a step down here.  I realize I'm going to be a back marker.  He continues to expect a lot out of himself and a lot out of his team.
    "People bought into that, and they followed him, and we've seen results from it. 
    "I don't know too many drivers that would do that.
    "But  that's what makes this so special -- because he believes in what we're doing. 
    "It's more than just he works for me; we work together.
    "The chemistry in this group is so strong.... I didn't know when it would come, I just knew something special was going to come from this group of drivers."

   "The challenge for me is, as we build cars to make them better every week, is to put ourselves in position to win a race... and that's what happened," Jenkins said. "If it hadn't been for David Ragan and David Gilliland working together at the end, we wouldn't have it.
    "Most of all it's so satisfying that over the last nine years every year we've gotten a little bit better.  And I felt the progress.
    "I knew it was just a matter of time before we'd win one of these things."

     Spending nickels and dimes against rivals with hundred dollar bills?
     "I wouldn't say it's nickels and dimes," Jenkins says with a laugh.
    "These guys know how to spend money.
    "But in the racing graveyard, my epitaph won't be 'I won the most races or championships,' but I want to be known as a team owner that did the most with the least. 
     "We work within ourselves.  The chassis we run, we build; we're not able to go out and buy products from other teams, and that's a disadvantage.
    "But on a day like this, it really makes you feel good because you know the equipment you won the race with was what you built in your own shop.
   "Although it's an expensive sport, we reinvest what we make back into the sport.  That's the only way we're going to get better. 
   "My philosophy from the beginning in this sport is you have to make your own place at the table.  Nobody is going to give it to you. 
    "I've always felt if we can go out and perform and put out a good product, then sponsorship will come, respect will come, and hopefully wins will come."


David Ragan

I hope that David Ragan can have another Big Money Ride so he can win 10 Races a Year.

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