DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.— David Ragan came so close to scoring the victory at Daytona International Speedway in the Coke Zero 400, but was shuffled back to the sixth position on a late-race restart in NASCAR OT.
Ragan was leading the race when the race restarted on lap 162, but Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. had the dominate car and shuffled Ragan out of the lead.
His sixth place finish at Daytona was his best finish since a fifth place finish at the Martinsville Spring race in 2015.
Despite a sixth place finish, Ragan admits he didn’t have the speed when he was out front:
“Our car didn’t have speed up front. Our car drove really good which allowed me to stay in the throttle and really push cars. We had a little damage to our right front fender too. It just didn’t go as it needed to,” said Ragan.
Despite being on the front row on the final restart, Ragan estimated the run by Ty Dillon, but underestimated the charge from Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Michael McDowell.
“I really thought that if we could clear the 13 (Ty DIllon), we would be in good shape. I didn’t know the 17 and 95 had that good of a run. My car wasn’t good on the bottom either. It liked to run that middle and top. I just didn’t want to let anybody get on my outside.
Despite his recent records at Daytona, Ragan was pleased about his run:
“If it was Thursday and you said ‘Hey, we will give you a sixth place finish,’ I would probably would have took that coming to Daytona. My record hasn’t been that great the last several years. I have been caught up in wrecks. I haven’t been able to finish these races clean. To be that close its bittersweet, but I can handle it,” said Ragan.
Ragan understands defeat. In 2011, Ragan lost the Daytona 500 on a late race restart to Trevor Bayne. Ragan will think about it but believe losing this race is nothing.
“I lost the Daytona 500 down here. Losing the Coke Zero 400 that ain’t nothing. I will think about it tonight and tomorrow a little bit. I can think about it and smile.”
Ragan currently sits 28th in the Cup series points standings, 438 points behind Kyle Laron, but 41 points ahead of Aric Almirola, who sits 30th in points.
In the first round of qualifying, teams were running about 10 to 15 mph slower than they were in the practice sessions this weekend. Qualifying was halted after 22 drivers to the afternoon thunderstorms in the Daytona Beach area, but resumed shortly after 3:30 pm eastern, a 70 minute delay. David Ragan was fastest in the first round with a speed of 181.302 mph followed by Austin Dillon, Joey Logano, Erik Jones, and Brennan Poole. Carl Long, Derrike Cope, and Mike Harmon will be packing up their haulers as they did not qualify for the Subway Firecracker 250. Blake Koch and Brendan Gaughan are notable Xfinity drivers that did not make the top-12 in this round. Notable drivers advancing to the second round include Corey Lajoie and Benny Gordon.
The second round of qualifying went green without any delays. Corey Lajoie qualified 10th and Benny Gordon rounded out the round in the 12th position.
The Xfinity Series cars will be impounded before tonight’s race. Coverage begins at 7 pm eastern on NBC Sports Network (NBCSN) and Motor Racing Network.
Matt DiBenedetto was unlike most kids his age growing up. Forget about the extracurricular activities at school, he wanted to race. That’s what he’s known since the age of five.
DiBenedetto, now 25, is competing in his second season for BK Racing at the helm of the No. 83 Toyota, something he says he never could have imagined.
Growing up, DiBenedetto was winning races left and right, making his competition look silly, thus why he wanted to pursue it as a career. However, he didn’t realize how good he was at racing until other competitors and parents of his peers went up to him and his family saying that they should move to the east coast to view their options.
“My whole life,” DiBenedetto told Speedway Digest of how long he’s wanted to be a racecar driver. “When I started racing in go-karts and dirt, it was just for fun. We didn’t know anything else. We just went out there and played around. We were very naïve and didn’t realize how hard it is and the money it takes.”
In 2007, driving for his family-owned race team, DiBenedetto quit racing. While competing in the UARA Stars Late Model Touring Series, winning two races, the team did not have the financial support to keep racing.
It was a call from J.D. Gibbs, president of Joe Gibbs Racing that allowed DiBenedetto to get back into racing and move out east from California. He was signed by Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008, and made his first-career XFINITY Series start in 2009 at Memphis, finishing 14th.
He competed in seven races between 2009 and 2010 for JGR in the XFINITY Series, after being acknowledged as one of the organizations future drivers. That year, the No. 20 car was shared with Cup Series veterans such as Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano, winning three races.
DiBenedetto raced part-time until 2014 in the XFINITY Series, when he attempted to drive the full season with The Motorsports Group, finishing 21st in the standings.
However, 2015 was a career-changing year for DiBenedetto.
BK Racing decided it wanted to move on from Alex Bowman and several other drivers who were put in the No. 83 machine. The organization decided to put DiBenedetto in the racecar, while having no prior experience in the Cup Series. He made his Cup Series debut at Phoenix, the fourth race of the season.
DiBenedetto finished the 2015 season 35th in the championship standings with a best result of 18th at the spring race at Talladega Superspeedway.
Beginning at the start of 2016, BK Racing wanted to up the ante, adding NASCAR veteran David Ragan to the driver lineup, fielding two full-time rides. Since then, DiBenedetto is happy with the improvements from last year.
“I’m extremely excited and blessed to be in the Sprint Cup Series,” DiBenedetto said. “It’s tough now-a-days to have a ride without bringing a lot of funding to a team. I’m just fortunate to drive for a team that has a good teammate with David Ragan.”
After racing his way into the Daytona 500 in a third BK Racing car with Michael Waltrip, two-time Daytona 500 winner piloting his No. 83 car, DiBenedetto saw limited success until Phoenix –the fourth race of the year – where he started 23rd and ran around the top 20 all day long, finished 20th.
It wasn’t until Bristol that DiBenedetto showed his true colors. Staying out late in the race while others pitted, the No. 83 car kept on moving toward the front, finishing sixth, a career-high for the organization and he.
“I think my sixth place at Bristol is number one,” DiBenedetto said was his career highlight. “It wasn’t a win on my resume, but it was a win as a team. That was cool for the whole team.”
The team has said to be getting more help from Toyota Racing Development (TRD) to advance them up the ladder of the sport.
“I’m able to focus on a lot more detailed things than last year,” he said. “Just like perfecting pit stops, getting on and off pit road and managing my race. It’s just a lot more comfortable to sum it up. I feel like I can do a better job for the team.”
A lot of the advancement has said to come with the addition of Ragan. The driver of the No. 23 Toyota is a two-time winner in the Cup Series, winning the July race at Daytona International Speedway in 2011, and picking up a victory for Front Row Motorsports in 2013 at Talladega, a team similar in size and funding to BK Racing.
Ragan is coming off a season in which he drove for three different teams. He raced the 2015 Daytona 500 for FRM, but the next week piloted the No. 18 car at Atlanta for an injured Kyle Busch with JGR. He competed in nine events JGR before finishing the season with Michael Waltrip Racing, but was forced to find another ride after the team shut its doors at the end of the year.
Now, in his 10th full year in the Cup Series, Ragan is the veteran of the team, a new role for the 30-year-old.
Through 15 races in 2016, Ragan has a best finish of 17th at Dover, but had led at least one lap in four events.
“We are both very positive and upbeat guys and I think that keeps out guys very encouraged,” DiBenedetto said of Ragan. “It’s really about jointing these two teams together, but we need all the resources we need to be the best we can. It helps a lot and feels like a big family.”
In August, DiBenedetto and veteran crew chief Gene Nead will have worked together for one full year. Prior to having his current leader on the pit box, Doug Richert was his crew chief. Nead has 13 wins in his NASCAR career, the first coming with Dale Earnhardt, Sr. in 1980 and the last coming with Greg Biffle in 2006.
“Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever worked as well with a crew chief,” DiBenedetto said. “He’s helped me because he is an old-schooled guy with a lot of experience. He’s been around the sport for a long time. He knows a lot of things that I don’t and I learn from him very week. He stays on me really hard and makes sure that I’m on the wheel every lap of the race. He makes me want to be better.”
Since that sixth-place effort at Bristol in mid-April, DiBenedetto has yet to crack the top 30, having four DNF’s in the process, including the last two races at Pocono and Michigan.
The goal for the remainder of the season is to keep improving and constantly cracking the top 25, something DiBenedetto has done twice this year in 15 races. As an organization, the two cars have a combined nine top-25 finishes, the other seven coming from Ragan.
“It’s tough because when you look at the top 20 and top 25, you have Hendrick cars, Stewart-Haas cars,” DiBenedetto said of his competition. “It’s just a lot of very top funding teams running in that area. It’s just so competitive throughout the field and we run on such a smaller budget than they do. Some races when we get everything right and do our jobs, we have some breakout runs and beat those guys. It’s really tough to compete with teams that have more engineers than we do employees total.”
This weekend, DiBenedetto heads back to his home state of California for his second-career start at Sonoma Raceway. Last year, he placed 29th in the finishing order.
While having more friends and family at the racetrack compared to other races, DiBenedetto still has to partake in the event, which is the first road race of 2016. Last year the support he received took him by surprise, but now he’s adjusted comfortably into his role at BK Racing, a place he wants to stay at as long as Rob Devine, owner of BK Racing will have him.
2015 was the year that Roush Fenway Racing hit rock bottom. For the first time in team history, none of the organizations cars made the Chase for the Sprint Cup in its 13-year existence. For the first time in team history, they had no shot at the championship.
Team owner Jack Roush is an equivalent to a racing God. He has placed cars on the track in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series full-time for the last 28 years. In its tenure in the Cup Series, RFR has been with one manufacture, Ford. The two sides have stuck with each other through thick and thin, last year being the absolute thinnest.
It is possible that any other team may have folded, but Roush is a racer. It’s what he has done for the majority of his lifetime. The Concord, N.C.-based team has had to overcome tough seasons in the past, but it needs speed to be competitive in 2016.
RFR finished 2015 as a team with an average finish of 23.3, the worst in team history. The worst season for the team prior to 2015 was in 2001 when the team’s average finish was 19.2, though posting two victories. Over the span of the 36-race schedule, the organization led a team-low 43 laps, and went winless for the first time since the 1996 season.
As the team progresses into the new year, it has mixed up its interior design.
Trevor Bayne is entering his second full season as the driver of the No. 6 AdvoCare Ford. It seems like a distant memory, but the five-year anniversary of his first career win is approaching this February when he took the Wood Brothers to Victory Lane in the Daytona 500.
The team has paired Bayne with veteran crew chief Matt Puccia. For the last four and a half seasons, Puccia worked with former XFINITY Series and Camping World Truck Series champion Greg Biffle. In the 162 races that the duo worked together they picked up three victories, 24 top fives and 54 top-10 finishes, including 21 in 2012.
2012 was arguably one of Biffle’s best seasons in terms of consistency as he posted a career-best 10.2 average finish. Since that season, he’s cooled down only picking up one win at Michigan in 2013.
For Bayne, he needs leadership. It seems like he’s been around longer than he really has, but 2016 will be only his second full-time season in NASCAR’s premier series. He finished 29th in the championship standings, and didn’t lead a single lap all season long, not even on the restrictor plate tracks, which he normally runs near the front.
“I think last season we were kind of shoved into the dark a little bit, we didn’t know what we were going into,” Bayne told Speedway Digest. “We were optimistic, but we didn’t know. This season we have a lot more notes. We’ve had people in places for longer. I know my crew chief Matt Puccia. I’ve done this for a season so I know what that grind is like. I feel like I can be more optimistic.”
Bayne has had to overcome remarkable odds to ever step foot back into a competitive car due to having Multiple Sclerosis (MS), a disease that affects the central nervous system.
After taking some time off, Bayne has trained extremely hard to make sure he can make it through a full event. He went to Victory Lane in the XFINITY Series at Iowa in 2013, the only time he has been victorious since the diagnosis in NASCAR, he does have one victory in the ARCA Racing Series at Pocono in 2015.
Since that time, the 24-year-old has grown up. Bayne got married to his longtime girlfriend, had a child and is now competing full-time in the Cup Series.
“This season versus last season, our team the way that its working together is a lot different,” Bayne said. “It’s not just saying ‘hey we’re working together’ it’s actually making physical changes in the race shop. It’s putting all of the cars together.
“It’s moving all of the crew chiefs to one office. It’s the drivers coming in and being a part of the meetings. That leads to change and that leads to forward progress in our organization.”
The organization as a whole is destined to do better this season.
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. is entering his fourth full-time season in the No. 17 car. The two-time XFINITY Series champion has underperformed in his first three seasons, but his relationship with Bayne could be crucial going forward.
The two younger drivers are potentially the future of RFR. Stenhouse is in a contract season and knows that he needs to up the ante in 2016 coming off a season in which he only produced three top 10s.
Biffle is entering the twilight of his career as he is the oldest full-time driver in the Cup Series. He is signed through the 2017 season, and this will more than likely that will be his last stint in the No. 16 car. With drivers such as Darrell Wallace, Jr. and Chris Buescher, who is laying in the weeds over at Front Row Motorsports, the pressure is on the younger drivers. The 45-year-old has established himself with RFR and is the leader on that team.
The key to the movement could be the Bayne, Puccia relationship. The driver is known for getting everything out of the racecar and sometimes pushing the envelope just a little too much. With a new crew chief coming in, it could be the perfect match for the kid. Cool, calm and collective will be their focus.
“I think that as I was talking about communication, he and I have that,” Bayne said. “Our personalities are a lot alike in racing. We’re racers, that’s what we are. That’s what we have in common. We talk about it and work on our cars. I’ve known him for a long time. I believe in him.”
The pressure to perform is at an all-time high for Bayne. His start in the No. 6 car is similar to David Ragan’s back in 2007. He picked up his first career top-five finish in the Daytona 500 and then fell of the face of the Earth. He picked up another top-five and tallied a total of three top 10s in his rookie campaign. At the time, Ragan posted four DNF’s compared to Bayne’s three, but finished on the lead lap more times than the 2015 season.
Those numbers are very similar to the current driver of the legendary No. 6 team.
Competing for a championship isn’t a realistic expectation this season for Bayne and the rest of Roush Fenway Racing, but making the Chase is. Once a team is in the Chase, anything can happen.