David Ragan proved that just about anybody can win at Talladega Superspeedway.
If a driver can avoid being caught up in the big wrecks and be in the thick of things during the final lap around this 2.66-mile superspeedway, then he or she has a shot of crossing the finish line in first place.
That was indeed the case on Sunday at Talladega.
Ragan avoided the first major accident, involving 16 cars, in the early going and then the second big one, claiming 12 cars, in the closing laps. The last caution set up a two-lap overtime finish, as darkness approached due to a rain delay of 3 hours, 36 minutes earlier in the day.
Heading into the last lap, Ragan ran in the sixth position, while his Front Row Motorsports teammate, David Gilliland, was right behind him in seventh. Gilliland pushed Ragan on the backstretch before Ragan dipped below Carl Edwards and passed him for the lead in turn 3. Gilliland moved into second.
Ragan went on to beat Gilliland to the finish line by 0.2 seconds, while Edwards crossed the line in a close third.
"I knew once I came out of turn 4 I had enough steam that I could have made my car wide enough that I was going to make it back around to the start-finish line," Ragan said. "It's a huge, huge deal for us to be sitting here right now, and it makes it even more special to get a one-two finish. Can you believe that?"
Edwards, who was attempting to win at Talladega for the first time, said he had no idea Ragan and Gilliland were charging through the field the way they did on the final lap. Edwards had passed Matt Kenseth for the lead right after the restart for the green-white-checkered finish. Kenseth had been dominant throughout the race, leading 142 of 192 laps.
"I had a blast, and on the white-flag lap I thought we were going to win it until I saw those guys (Ragan and Gilliland) coming, and I thought, 'Who is that?' and they were coming," Edwards said. "I blocked as much as I could. David did everything but spin me out down the back straightaway. He was all over the back bumper. I could feel from the way he was pushing and moving that if I turned to stay across his hood and they went one way and I went the other that I knew I was going to be on the highlight reel for the wrong reasons."
Edwards was thankful the last lap in this race wasn't a repeat of what happened in the 2009 spring event at Talladega, where he crashed spectacularly into the catch fence along the front stretch while battling Brad Keselowski for the win.
Ragan claimed his second career Sprint Cup Series victory. His first win came in July 2011 at Daytona, the sister track to Talladega, when he drove for Roush Fenway Racing. His Talladega victory also earned him a spot in the May 18 NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte.
"That's a big deal for our team and for our sponsors," he said. "We try to sell Front Row Motorsports, and it's tough to sell a team when we run 15th or 20th or 25th, and we're not battling for a championship. It's tough to do that, and it means a lot to be in our all-star event in our sport, which I think is the best all-star event in any of the major league sports."
Ragan delivered Front Row Motorsports its first win in NASCAR's premier series, which gives the underfunded three-car team a huge boost in securing more sponsorship opportunities. Josh Wise, a Nationwide Series regular, also drives for the team.
"It will help our program; there's no doubt about that," team owner Bob Jenkins said. "My philosophy from the beginning is, in this sport, you have to make your own place at the table. Nobody is going to give it to you. I've always felt like 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. That's kind of been our attitude all along."
Jenkins' team entered Sprint Cup competition in 2005, and ran a limited schedule with many lesser-known drivers during its first four years in the series. Gilliland joined the team in 2010, while Ragan came on board two years later.
Prior to Ragan's win at Talladega, the best finish for a Front Row Motorsports driver in a Cup race was Gilliland's third-place run in the 2011 Daytona 500. Ragan gave the team its second top-five finish last October, placing fourth at Talladega.
"We've worked really hard at Front Row on our speedway program, because it's a great equalizer racing at Daytona and Talladega," said Jay Guy, who serves as the crew chief for Ragan's No. 34 Ford. "This is our chance to shine, so we always put a little extra effort into these races. Did I think when I woke up (Sunday) morning that we were going to be sitting here? No. I thought we had a good shot at being in the top 10 solidly. Last year, we finished seventh and fourth, but that's last year. You can't live off of what you did yesterday.
"I thought our pit crew has taken a big step forward, and our team has gotten stronger as a whole. I thought we had a chance, but to be up here, I'd be lying if I said yeah."
Before Talladega, Ragan had finished no better than 20th and Gilliland 23rd this season.
"Some day we want to be an organization that can go and compete for wins on a weekly basis, but we're not there yet," Gilliland said. "So to be able to come to these type of tracks, we definitely put a lot of preparation into and a lot of emphasis on our speedway program, and (Sunday), we had two very fast race cars, and we were able to come home 1-2."
Currently 26th in the point standings, Ragan's odds of making this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship are about the same as his chances were of winning at Talladega, which were quite slim. But, hey, Daytona's second race of the season is two months away. If Ragan can win another race and hold a top-20 position in points when the regular season concludes on Sept. 7 at Richmond, then he has a very good shot of earning one of the two wild card positions for the Chase.
Front Row Motorsports would certainly savor that accomplishment.