David Ragan can joke about the 2011 Daytona 500 – now

BRISTOL, TENNESSEE - AUGUST 16: David Ragan, driver of the #38 MDS Ford, qualifies for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on August 16, 2019 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

On the first attempt at an overtime finish in the 2011 Daytona 500, David Ragan’s life changed.

Given eight years of perspective, and a recent decision to alter the course of his life once again, Ragan now can joke about the fateful restart, but he still reflects on what might have been, had the finish of that race gone according to plan.

Ragan, who announced his impending retirement from full-time racing on Wednesday, knew when he got behind the wheel of the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford for Daytona Speedweeks in 2011 that he was racing for his job.

Rumors that sponsor UPS might be leaving the team at the end of the season had already surfaced. But when the Great American Race went to overtime, Ragan was in control, poised to take home the Harley J. Earl trophy and salvage his career.

Ragan led the field to green to start Lap 203, but moments before he reached the start/finish line, he steered his car from the top lane down in front of the No. 21 Woods Brothers Ford of Trevor Bayne on the bottom. NASCAR black-flagged Ragan for changing lanes before the stripe, handing the lead to Bayne, but before the lap was over, AJ Allmendinger turned Ryan Newman into the outside wall on the backstretch.

Newman’s car bounced off the barrier, slid across the track and collected the cars of Martin Truex Jr. and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Bayne held the lead for a second overtime restart and stayed out front the rest of the way, winning the Daytona 500 in his second Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start, the day after his 20th birthday.

Bayne never won again in the top series, but the victory in NASCAR’s most prestigious race sustained a career that lasted eight years, first with the Wood Brothers and later with Roush Fenway.

Though Ragan returned to Daytona in July and won the Coke Zero 400, the die was already cast. At the end of the season, he lost his sponsor and lost his ride.

“I think about it a lot,” Ragan said on Friday in advance of Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) after discussing his decision to retire from full-time racing and spend more quality time with his wife Jacquelyn and two daughters. “I have become friends with Trevor, and I think that there’s no one that would have filled that role that I would have wanted to win that race more than Trevor, but, yeah, I do think about it.

“It made me sad for a little while, and you thought about ‘what ifs?’ and now I can laugh about it and joke about it, and that’ll be a fun story to tell. But that’s real. That was a close encounter for who knows what would have changed in my career. But I’m happy everything worked out the way it did, and you learn from those moments of defeat, and that was certainly a teachable moment.”

Ragan signed on with Front Row Motorsports and claimed his second career victory at Talladega in 2013. He competed for Michael Waltrip Racing and BK Racing in 2015 and 2016, respectively, before returning to Front Row in 2017.

But Ragan still rues the day he lost his job with Roush Fenway.

“Leaving Roush Racing was an incredibly sad time for me,” he acknowledged. “Leaving a great team that we’d just won a race. Drew Blickensderfer was my crew chief, and we had a pretty good year, and it felt like the tide had turned. I’d matured and gotten a little smarter. Our race cars were getting better. So that was a difficult time.”

Ultimately, though, he found solace and joy in his new surroundings.

“I went to Front Row, which was just a part-time team—a couple of different drivers revolving through that driving seat,” Ragan said. “I didn’t know what the future looked like, but that was one of the biggest blessings of my life. I got to meet some really good friends, lifelong friends.

“My wife is great friends with David Gilliland’s wife and Michael McDowell’s wife and some of the other family members that are around. It’s amazing how things like that just happen sometimes. When you felt like your back was against the wall and you were going in a bad direction, it turned out to be one of the best directions in my life.”