TALLADEGA, Ala. — It was dark, it was rainy, it was cold. These two laps would decide the Aaron’s 499 seven hours after the Sprint Cup race started.
David Ragan needed a drafting partner, somebody he could trust. Who better than Front Row Motorsports teammate David Gilliland?
These two drive for a low-budget operation by Sprint Cup standards. Yet they powered through the likes of Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth to win the green-white-checkered restart of a rain-filled and crash-heavy race.
Ragan won and Gilliland finished second, holding off Edwards down the final straightaway.
“I got hooked up with David – it was clear my best chance with anybody was to stick with him,” Gilliland said afterward. “I stayed right with his bumper. I’ve always been a little scared of going through the corners (in full draft) because the front car gets compact” potentially causing an accident.
Gilliland said he would’ve raced his teammate for the win, but Ragan was able to pull so far ahead that Gilliland became more occupied with holding off Edwards for second.
It looked like Edwards, points leader Johnson and Kenseth had the strongest cars, but that doesn’t necessarily win at the superspeedways, where drafting expertise and the good luck to avoid massive wrecks loom large.
There were two massive wrecks Sunday; the first involved 16 cars 44 laps in, when Kyle Busch tapped the back of Kasey Kahne’s car. Kahne veered into the wall, setting of the chain reaction typical of Talladega wrecks.
“I caused it,” Busch acknowledged. “I tore up a lot of good cars.”
The second major wreck came with six laps to go, after NASCAR waited out a three-hour rain delay. By the time the race resumed, with about 50 laps to go, there was no more than an hour of daylight left.
Ryan Newman and Kurt Bush took the worst of the second crash and nine other cars were damaged. Newman criticized NASCAR on Fox’s telecast, questioning why the race wasn’t called during the three-hour delay.
Clearly agitated, Newman said, the whole field ended up “running in the dark, running in the rain.”
NASCAR announced that due to the fading daylight, there would be only one green-white-checkered restart, rather than the maximum three allowed normally. That was similar to what happened Saturday in the Nationwide race, which similarly ended about 7:15 local time under adverse conditions.
That gave Ragan and Gilliland the crack they needed to pull off a shocker. Ragan came from 10th place at the restart.
“If it wasn’t for that final push from David Gilliland, I don’t know what” would have happened, Ragan said. “This is a true David and Goliath moment here.
“The draft is the big equalizer and anything can happen. I had a great teammate. (He) gave us a great push. I owe him a lot. I’ll definitely buy him lunch this week or something.”
Edwards seemed the driver to beat. He made a daring pass of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. just as the rain started, so he was the leader throughout the three-hour rain delay. Had NASCAR called the race – allowable since it was past the midway point – Edwards would have been declared the winner.
So naturally he joked on the telecast, “It’s bad out there – I’d run for cover.”
It was bad at the end between more sprinkles and fading light. Edwards said condition deteriorated to a point that the yellow light coming from the pace car was actually blinding him at the restart.
None of that kept Edwards from saluting Ragan and Gilliland:
“I wanted to win this race very badly, but I couldn’t be happier for these guys,” Edwards said.
“I’d like an invitation to the party, because I figure it’s going to be a pretty big one.”