Over the course of his NASCAR Cup Series career, David Ragan proved to be one of the more consistent restrictor-plate racers, earning both of his Cup wins on superspeedways.
The last and most surprising of those occurred on May 5, 2013, at Talladega Superspeedway with Ragan competing for Front Row Motorsports, a team that hadn’t won a race since its founding 2005.
A rain delay caused the Aaron’s 499 to end near darkness as the race concluded with a green-white-checkered finish.
Ragan restarted five rows back on the outside as Matt Kenseth led the field.
When the field took the white flag, Carl Edwards led as Ragan raced around the fifth position. Right behind him was teammate David Gilliland.
Going down the backstretch, a shove from Gilliland helped Ragan split a gap between Kenseth on the outside and Jimmie Johnson on the inside as Edwards still led.
Kenseth was quickly moved aside as Ragan assumed his spot hugging Edwards’ rear bumper.
That lasted only a moment as Ragan darted to the inside with his momentum as they entered Turn 3. He nosed ahead of Edwards in the middle of the turn and had the lead as they entered the frontstretch.
As Ragan dodged-and-weaved his way through the tri-oval, Gilliland side-drafted Edwards. After Ragan took the checkered flag, Gilliland barely beat Edwards to the finish line, giving the aptly named Front Row Motorsports a 1-2 finish.
“I don’t know what to say, this is a true David vs Goliath moment here,” Ragan told Fox in Victory Lane. “They’re not all this easy, but man, this is special to get Front Row Motorsports their first win. Feels like I’ve never been here before.”
Also on this date:
1963: Jim Paschal led the final 69 laps to win a Grand National race at Tar Heel Speedway in Randleman, North Carolina. Paschal beat Joe Weatherly for the victory on the quarter-mile dirt track. It was the second of only three Grand National races the track hosted, all coming in the 1963-64 season.
1968: David Pearson led all but one lap to win a 300-lap event at Asheville-Weaverville (N.C.) Speedway. He beat Bobby Isaac by two laps for the victory on the half-mile paved track. It would only host three more Grand National races for a total of 34.
1985: Without the aid of a caution, Bill Elliott came from nearly two laps down to win at Talladega after a broken oil fitting sent him to pit road on Lap 48. Elliott passed Cale Yarborough with 20 laps to go and then beat Kyle Petty by 1.72 seconds. It was one of the three wins Elliott claimed in order to achieve the Winston Million that year.
April 15 in NASCAR: David Pearson wins at Darlington by 13 laps
The track would be the site of 10 of Pearson’s 105 Cup Series wins, but none were quite like this one.
Pearson started on the pole in his No. 21 Wood Brothers Mercury and led 246 of the race’s 367 laps, including the final 176.
The race was a mess, as 11 cautions slowed the race for 71 laps, most of them for wrecks. Only 14 of the 40 cars finished the race.
But none of those that made it to the end would be close to Pearson.
Bobby Allison was the only driver with a shot, but his engine expired with 18 laps to go. He still finished third.
While the damaged car of Benny Parson puttered around the track at 40 mph to a second-place finish, Pearson ran away and won by 13 laps. According to “Forty Years of Stock Car Racing: The Modern Era,” it was the largest win on a speedway since Ned Jarrett won the 1965 Southern 500 by 14 laps.
“If David Pearson had fallen out of the race in the last 20 laps, we’d have been here until June trying to figure out who won,” joked NASCAR’s scoring director, Morris Metcalfe, according to “Forty Years of Stock Car Racing.”
Also on this date:
1962: Richard Petty won at North Wilkesboro for the sixth Cup win of his career. According to “Forty Years of Stock Car Racing: The Superspeedway Boom,” a caution had to be put out on Lap 250 so that a fuel truck could get more gas. Pit crews were seen scrambling in the infield with buckets and hoses as they siphoned gas from street cars to fuel race cars. The lack of gas was attributed to 23 of race’s initial 35 cars running at the end. The fuel truck never made it back to the track.
1963: Jim Paschal won a 200-lap race at Bowman-Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It capped three consecutive days of Grand National Series races in three different states, preceded by events at Greenville-Pickens Speedway in South Carolina and South Boston Speedway in Virginia. In addition to the 300 miles drivers raced on-track, those who competed in all three races would have had to travel roughly 380 miles between tracks.
1971: Petty won at Smokey Mountain Raceway in Maryville, Tennessee, over Benny Parsons for his sixth win in the first 13 races of the season. It was the last of 12 races the Grand National Series held at the .520-mile short track, beginning in 1965.
1984: Darrell Waltrip led 251 of 367 laps to win at Darlington in a race that, according to “Forty Years of Stock Car Racing: The Modern Era,” saw 25 of 38 cars damaged in some form. “This race was like putting a bunch of piranha in a pool with one piece of meat,” Waltrip said.
2007: Ten years after he christened the track with his first career Cup win in its inaugural race, Jeff Burton became the first driver to win two Cup races at Texas Motor Speedway. He led only the last lap after passing Matt Kenseth.
April 14 in NASCAR: Bill Elliott wins at Darlington
It was the prelude to greatness. In the 1985 season that Bill Elliott would win the Winston Million at Darlington in September, he won at the track on April 14.
Elliott took the lead from Tim Richmond with 36 laps to go and went on to win the TranSouth 500 that day.
Elliott started on the pole and led 146 of 367 laps to score his third win of the year. He would go on to win 11 times that season. Darrell Waltrip finished second, followed by Tim Richmond, Terry Labonte and Rusty Wallace.
Also on this date:
1957: Fireball Roberts led the final 65 laps to score the win at Langhorne Speedway in Pennsylvania. It was his second of three consecutive Grand National wins. He scored a career-high eight wins that season.
1963: Richard Petty led 325 of 400 laps to win at South Boston Speedway in Virginia. Runner-up Jim Paschal finished two laps behind Petty.
1991: Rusty Wallace took the lead with 23 laps to go to win at Bristol. It was his third career victory at that track. He would go on to score nine Cup wins in his career there.
1996: Terry Labonte won at North Wilkesboro in the next-to-last Cup race at that track.
2002: Bobby Labonte scored his lone Cup win at Martinsville Speedway in 42 attempts.
Friday 5: North Wilkesboro to make its comeback on iRacing
Long gone but never forgotten, North Wilkesboro Speedway will make a comeback.
Steve Myers, executive vice president and executive producer at iRacing, told NBC Sports that “we’re on track to get (North Wilkesboro) released the first week of June.”
No other long lost track is as revered among NASCAR fans as the .625-mile speedway where the frontstretch went downhill into Turns 1 and 2 and the backstretch went uphill into Turns 3 and 4.
NASCAR ran 93 Cup races there from 1949 — when it was the finale in the inaugural season of NASCAR — to 1996. Hall of Famer Junior Johnson was the local favorite. Richard Petty and Bobby Allison had an epic door-banging battle in 1972. Ricky Rudd and Dale Earnhardt tangled on the last lap in 1989 and crashed, leading Rudd to hide in the back seat of a passenger car to escape the wrath of fans. Jeff Gordon won the final Cup race there in 1996.
The track was revived in 2010 and held a few races. Its final race was 2011.
In December, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and others helped clean the surface so the track could be scanned and added to iRacing’s sim racing program.
“There were certainly sections of the track that were much worse condition than could possibly be raced on,” Myers said. “Turns 3 and 4, the pavement was sliding. You could see it was buckling in on a section of the track … from sitting unused for so many years.
“Going into Turn 1, the drainage coming out from underneath the grandstands kind of ran across the track and because it was downhill, it was funneling down the front straight pit wall and right along into Turn 1 and collecting in the apron at the exit of the pits. You could tell there (had been) a lot of water there because the pavement started peeling up along that wall. So those things are kind of the obstacles that we have in the production process of trying to figure out how to smooth those things out and do the best we can.
“The data, we looked through it already, we’re pretty far along on the development of the track. It actually looks pretty good.”
That’s not the only track iRacing is working on to give race fans. They are working to do a version of Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville.
“Everyone that has kind of been clamoring for that, I think, is going to be excited about that,” Myers said.
2. Offseason iRacing?
OK, it was one event under extraordinary times where there were no other live sporting events on TV at time when normally there would have been NCAA basketball tournament games, NBA and NHL contests, among other sports, but the excitement (and viewership) for last weekend’s debut of the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series has raised the question of if this is something that could be done in NASCAR’s offseason.
With NASCAR looking to end future seasons earlier and possibly making the offseason longer, a question was posed on social media if iRacing with Cup drivers would be a good offseason element for the sport and its fans.
Tim Clark, NASCAR senior vice president and chief digital officer, told NBC Sports this week that “anything is possible, (but) I do think it’s probably early to think about that now.
“I think we’re in a unique position in that we’ve got not only sim racers like you see in the (eNascar) Coca-Cola (iRacing) Series but also professional drivers that are able to do this at a high level,” Clark said. “What that does, I think it gives us some flexibility to determine what we’re going to do with these platforms and the timing. I think we want to strike the balance between having some opportunities to do more in this space but also being cognizant enough to not oversaturate.”
Should there be something in the offseason, it would face obstacles. Many drivers typically take vacations after the season. With the holidays of December, that makes it more challenging.
Now, if there was an interest in a short series of offseason races, January could be the time. Sundays could prove difficult because of NFL playoff games. So maybe a midweek event? Still that would face competition from other pro and college sports. And of course, the biggest question is if people will still want this after sports resume throughout the calendar.
Mark Miles, president and CEO of Penske Entertainment Corp., which owns the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the NTT IndyCar Series, explained the move and what it could mean for the future.
“It’s not like we had a plan in place,” Miles said Thursday in a conference call with reporters. “It’s something that comes up. It’s been clear for a long time that both series, under the right circumstances, thought it could be a good thing for the sport and for each of our series.
“The spirits have always been willing. It hasn’t necessarily always been the highest priority, but this just sort of created the opportunity of here’s an opportunity, let’s go for it and as has been said there wasn’t much hesitation.”
IndyCar driver Graham Rahal expressed his feelings with running at Indy with NASCAR and the possibility of future doubleheaders with NASCAR.
“I’m extremely excited to run with NASCAR,” Rahal said in a social media video. “I think it’s a great opportunity for our sport, for their sport to come together. Opportunity maybe for some doubles to be done, which we’ll look into and things like that. But I do think that’s really good and it’s exciting for all of us to go off and do that together.”
With shops closed or running with a limited crew because of no racing until May 9 at the earliest for Cup organizations, teams are trying to figure out what to do next.
“What became very apparent to me about two Mondays ago is after Atlanta is that you could not make a long-range plan,” Philippe Lopez, general manager of Richard Petty Motorsports, told NBC Sports. “Because I did. I did it on Tuesday. I redid it on Wednesday. Then on Friday, I said, ‘You know what, it’s impossible. We’ve never gone through this.’ ”
Lopez said the RPM shop was closed this week and was closed part of the previous week.
“The biggest thing we’ve told (employees) that right now this is about them and their families and we wanted them to be home and be safe. We have continued to pay our employees and not cutting anything yet.
“They know, obviously if this goes on for much longer, we can’t afford to stay at that rate and that pace. There are, fortunately, some teams that can but we’re, unfortunately, not one of those.”
Lopez said that he is reaching out to employees each Friday to give them the plan for the coming week.
“The biggest thing was,” he said, “is we’re all going to get through this together.”
He said a group text for employees has been “really heartwarming to see how they are taking care of each other. It’s just a good bunch. Everyone is taking care of each other right now. I told them to not worry about the racing part. We can build cars in two weeks.”
5. Long wait
There are certainly bigger issues in the world with COVID-19 infecting more people in the U.S. than any other country and the demand for medical supplies.
While racing, along with all sports, waits to resume, there have been many stories that have intrigued me. One is Jesse Little.
The 22-year-old senior at UNC Charlotte spent the previous five seasons trying to make it in NASCAR’s Truck Series but never competing in half the races any of those season. His was a case of a driver seeking work his way into a full-time ride.
He got that chance this season in the Xfinity Series with JD Motorsports and after four races, he, like everyone else, waits for when sports can return.
Little understands his plight does not compare to others who are suffering.
He also understands that this pause is just part of a journey he has gone through to become a full-time racer.
“I’ve learned to expect nothing and be prepared to react to everything,” Little told NBC Sports.
The Xfinity Series is not scheduled to return to racing until May 23 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, meaning teams would go 11 weeks between races. He’s gone months between starts in his Truck career, which has seen him run between four and nine races since 2015.
He admits there have been times when his career could have ended because of the lack of rides.
“Like a lot of drivers in my position, there were always crests and there were troughs,” said Little, whose best finish this season was 14th at Las Vegas. “I think at the end of 2017 when I ran only four Truck races that year and my last race I crashed and was, like ‘OK this might be it. Luckily, I’m going to school full-time who knows.’
“We were fortunate enough to be able to make the investment and go racing and bring back some people I had great chemistry with and had good notebook and that’s when I had my most successful year in Trucks in 2018. So in the span of six months, I went from thinking I was pretty much done to having my best career finishes and leading laps.”
And it led to him getting a full-time ride this season.
“I’m fortunate to have the support system I do,” said Little, the son of former NASCAR driver Chad Little, of family and friends. “If it wasn’t for them, without a doubt, I probably would have said, ‘All right this racing stuff didn’t work out. I played my cards.’ “They forced me to continue down the path and in doing so, each step … I’ve been given chances and I’ve seen personally that I believe I have what it takes and I’m confident enough in myself. It’s proved to me and I think to the people I want to prove, I think I deserve a shot at showcasing the potential I have. Each one of those things has given me the next step to readjust and get to that next spot.”
While he waits to race, he keeps busy with school work.
“The week heading into Atlanta I was stressing a lot because the week going into Homestead was my midterms and I was swapped absolutely with school,” said Little, whose major is management information systems. “The week after my midterms was my senior project. Literally racing got put on hold right when I needed to focus on my two classes at school the most. That’s what I’m taking up my time and I’m able to focus on my school stuff.”
Even with that, he’s still doing his race prep work from exercising and studying race film.
“I want to be as prepared as I can,” he said about when racing returns.