By HANK KURZ Jr.
AP Sports Writer
MARTINSVILLE, Va. - David Ragan‚Äôs second career Nextel Cup Series start" and his first at tight, tricky Martinsville Speedway" could hardly have gone worse.
A year ago, he was involved in several accidents, infuriated veteran racers Tony Stewart and Ken Schrader and wasn‚Äôt allowed to race the following week at Atlanta.
On Sunday, Ragan will be back on the smallest circuit in the series, this time battling the heralded Juan Pablo Montoya in the race for the series‚Äô top rookie.
‚ÄúA lot has changed for the good,‚ÄĚ Ragan said on a rainy Friday at Martinsville, where practice time was short and he qualified 41st for Sunday‚Äôs Subway 500.
Ragan still went to Atlanta last season, finished sixth in a Craftsman Truck Series race and met with NASCAR officials to discuss his situation. He also made a winning bid of $5,750 for a pre-race ride with Stewart, and used it to pick his brain about racing.
A week earlier, Stewart said Ragan was ‚Äúa dart without feathers‚ÄĚ in the race.
Now, he‚Äôs almost a veteran with 31 races against the top stock-car drivers, and they no longer have to wonder who he is, what his driving style is, or if he belongs.
‚ÄúI learned a lot from that one race,‚ÄĚ Ragan said. ‚ÄúThe biggest thing was probably just patience and you‚Äôve got to know who you‚Äôre racing. Some guys you can race hard, and some guys you might as well just move on over and let ‚Äôem by, and vice versa.
‚ÄúI feel like I‚Äôm close to that credibility now. I‚Äôve still got a little bit of a ways to go. I still would like to be a contender week in and week out and contend for some wins, and I feel like we‚Äôre close. We‚Äôre not quite there yet.‚ÄĚ
They are close enough, though, to be in contention for rookie of the year, trailing Montoya by just 15 points. Montoya has one victory and three top-five finishes, and a resume that says former CART champion, Indy 500 winner and Formula One driver.
His decided edge in publicity, Ragan said, was expected.
‚ÄúSometimes I feel like we‚Äôve had some awesome runs and didn‚Äôt get the publicity that we needed, but that‚Äôs fine. We can understand that,‚ÄĚ Ragan said.
Flying below the radar does have it‚Äôs benefits, too.
‚ÄúThat‚Äôs fine with us because we can slowly sneak up on them and before you know it, everybody‚Äôs going to look at things at the end of the year and say ‚ÄėMan, the 6 car was there every time the 42 car was there,‚ÄĚ‚Äô Ragan said. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs been a lot of fun.‚ÄĚ
It helps that he got a great ride, replacing perennial championship contender Mark Martin in the No. 6 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing. Roush teams have won two titles.
Ragan makes no apologies for being Jack Roush‚Äôs next rising star, or for getting to draw on the expertise of crew chief Jimmy Fennig as part of the deal.
‚ÄúCertainly there was a point in time when I was driving junk, that I was driving race cars that were five years old and engines that had three races on them,‚ÄĚ he said.
‚ÄúIt hasn‚Äôt been this way my whole life.‚ÄĚ
Only for the last two years, he said, and, he hopes, for a long time to come.
‚ÄúIf I can improve as much as I have this year by this time next year, I think we‚Äôll be sitting pretty,‚ÄĚ he said.
And surely, by then, people will know his name.