Mark Edwards: Underdogs rule the day at Talladega
by Mark Edwards
May 05, 2013 | 11698 views |  0 comments | 82 82 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Aaron's 499 NASCAR race from Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday. Sprint Cup driver David Ragan's crew celebrates his win. Photo by Trent Penny
The Aaron's 499 NASCAR race from Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday. Sprint Cup driver David Ragan's crew celebrates his win. Photo by Trent Penny
TALLADEGA — This is like showing up for the SEC Championship Game and finding out Vanderbilt and Ole Miss will slug it out for the crown.

The Sprint Cup Series brought its stars to Talladega Superspeedway this weekend, including Jeff Gordon, Danica Patrick, Jimmy Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.; Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr.; and Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Did we mention Dale Earnhardt Jr.?)

And who ends up taking the top two spots in the Aaron's 499? Two guys named David Ragan and David Gilliland. Only dedicated gearheads might know much about them.

Ragan won Sunday's race, and he's not the same guy who won the Nationwide race Saturday. That's Regan Smith, and if you got Smith and Ragan confused, don't feel bad -- it seemed like most of the Twitter world did too Sunday night.

Ragan and Gilliland race for Front Row Motorsports, which is kind of the Mississippi State of the racing world -- they don't win much. Since Tennessee restaurant chain magnate Bob Jenkins became the team's full-time owner in 2005, Front Row drivers have made 406 starts in Sprint Cup races, finishing in the top five only four times. Two of those came Sunday from Ragan and Gilliland. Ragan's win was Jenkins' first in the Sprint Cup series.

Ragan, Gilliland and Jenkins say they don't have the resources to win big on the Sprint Cup series. They don't have the cash to buy the best equipment, and the team can't hire the best available drivers or crew chiefs.

They say they aren't a nickel-and-dime operation, but in reality, they aren't far from it. Their philosophy is to try to the most with the least.

They portray themselves as a band of brothers, who have a bond not every Sprint Cup team has. In their minds, it's "Us against the World," more than "David vs. Goliath." Maybe that focus is part of why they won.

In the final mad-dash restart, nobody could do it alone. So Ragan, who was 10th at the restart, got a tremendous push from Gilliland, who was 11th. Ragan and Gilliland immediately took advantage of their good fortune to be restarted next to each other. Gilliland had to give his teammate a boost for either of them to have a chance to win, and in the process, he managed to clear the way for Ragan's win.

As it happens, Ragan and Gilliland really weren't that much of an underdog Sunday. THey have a solid history at Talladega and Daytona, the two tracks where NASCAR requires restrictor plates. Ragan said that's kind of an equalizer, which benefits teams like his.

Coming into Sunday's race, Ragan already had five top-10 finishes at Talladega and four at Daytona. Gilliland had two each at Talladega and Daytona. Ragan finished fourth in the spring race at Talladega last year and seventh in the fall.

Oddly enough, both Ragan and Gilliland agreed to interviews Friday with The Anniston Star. The angle was two underdog drivers who had a decent history on this particular track.

"It’s exciting to come to Daytona/Talladega because we feel like if we play our cards right we have as good a chance to win as any of the other 42 guys on the track," Ragan said.

In the end, they really did have a chance. And if you're the type who loves those sappy movies in which the underdog somehow manages to win the big game, match, contest, card game, dance-off, etc., then Sunday's race was for you.

Who would've imagined these two might actually win ... except for them, of course.

Sports Editor Mark Edwards: 256-235-3570. On Twitter @MarkSportsStar.
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