SPARTA, Ky. -
David Ragan finally shrugged off the "best NASCAR driver without a Cup victory" tag when he took the checkered flag last weekend in Daytona.
The win was five seasons and 163 Cup starts in the making, and one that many expected to come sooner when Ragan earned a full-time ride driving the No. 6 car for Roush Fenway Racing in 2007 at the tender age of 21.
Ragan was dubbed one of the sport's "young guns" at the time of his promotion. The gun rarely fired with precision during Ragan's first four years, as he largely toiled in the middle of the pack while teammates Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle competed for Cup titles.
Yet there was no raucous celebration in Victory Lane after Kenseth pushed Ragan across the finish line in the muggy Florida heat. No overwhelming sense of relief. All that can wait for the winter. If anything, Ragan's long-awaited breakthrough has only turned the pressure up a notch or three.
"We have to make that win count for something," he said.
Namely, a spot in the Chase for the Championship this fall.
The 25-year-old knows it's time, perhaps past time, for him to do more than play out the string this fall. His victory vaulted him into one of the two wild-card spots available for the 12-driver Chase with nine races to go before the cutoff.
Suddenly, Ragan's summer got a lot more interesting.
So has NASCAR's, thanks to a mix of new faces and a new place the series hopes will add a little buzz to the dog days. Ragan is the third first-time Cup winner this year, three more than in 2010 and the season is only 17 races old.
Ragan will try to make it two straight tonight in an event — much like Ragan's triumph — that has been a long time coming.
The 1.5-mile oval opened to rave reviews more than a decade ago and has hosted Trucks and Nationwide Series races for years, but it took a protracted legal battle and the track's sale to Speedway Motorsports Inc., before it found a date on the Cup schedule.
A capacity crowd of more than 107,000 is expected, with SMI chairman Bruton Smith promising to put on the biggest sporting event the Bluegrass State has seen, the Kentucky Derby included.
Maybe, maybe not, though the drivers sound like they'd rather race on the dirt at Churchill Downs than deal with the tricky — not to mention bumpy — corners at the track tucked in the Kentucky hills.
Points leader Kevin Harvick, who won the first Nationwide Series race here in 2001, says Kentucky differs from the other 1.5-mile tracks because of the difficulty that awaits in Turns 3 and 4, believing the bumps add "character."
That's a polite way of calling them problematic.
Five-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson likens getting around at Kentucky to driving over a steel bridge in a passenger car.
"The car is constantly moving around," Johnson said.
The bumps haven't been a problem for Joey Logano, who is 3-for-3 in Nationwide races at the track. Yet Logano is aware that won't mean much when the flag drops tonight.
"(Other teams) are going to know what they need and they're going to know how to make speed pretty quick out there," Logano said.