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NASCAR: Live from Talladega

10/18/2013 - NASCAR

Another perfect storm for Ragan?

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- David Ragan isn't counting on blasting out of nowhere, catapulted by his teammate in their shoestring operation, for a second astounding win in a row on NASCAR's most tempestuous track.

"The chance of that perfect storm happening two consecutive races is probably not realistic," Ragan acknowledged Friday.

The first storm, in May, blew right past the bigger and richer contenders in Cup. The little Front Row Motorsports tandem hooked up at the end of the race, and Ragan was pushed to victory by teammate David Gilliland.

"We're certainly not counting on any situation like that to just come out of thin air late in the race," Ragan said. "But the chances of us both having a good day are realistic. And you just never know. You have to control the things you can control, and if I can do that and David can do that, we may be in the same situation again."

The odds for Sunday's Camping World RV Series 500 (2 p.m. ET, ESPN) are no longer than they were going into the May race. In fact, they might be slightly better.

The underdog win drew some sponsorship attention. "It certainly jump-started a few conversations and made some of our current partnerships stronger," Ragan said.

For Sunday he has safercar.gov, a website of the U.S. Department of Transportation, on his Ford. His sponsor from the spring race, Farm Rich, sponsored one more race this year and has "tentatively agreed for some races next year," Ragan said.

For a shoestring team without massive full-season sponsorships, "small deals like that go a long way," Ragan said.

The team puts more emphasis on, and resources into, restrictor-plate races than the more engineering-intensive intermediate-track events.

"We feel that we have more of a level playing field when the draft is considered and everyone is in that same pack," Ragan said.

Oh, and one other thing, other than a little more money than last time: "I think," he said, "I'm a little smarter coming into this race versus the spring race."

And this is, after all, Talladega. If two straight perfect storms could strike, this is the place.

-- Ed Hinton

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JJ tops field in final practice

Jimmie Johnson was fastest in the second practice Friday for Sunday's Camping World RV Series 500, as drivers settled into one-car runs. Johnson, second in the Chase standings, ran a lap at 195.936 mph, easily bettering playoff leader Matt Kenseth's 191.252, which was 17th-fastest.

But this is, after all, Talladega, so it's always hard to tell who is running hard and who is just tiptoeing around, trying not to wreck in practice.

The first practice, when drivers ran in big drafting packs, may have been more indicative of race speeds Sunday, over 200 mph. In that session, 11 drivers cracked the 200 mark, with Aric Almirola fastest at 202.000 and Jeff Burton second at 201.987.

Kenseth was the fastest driver under 200 in the first practice, 12th, at 199.492.

-- Ed Hinton

Calm, cool Kenseth

Just as you'd expect, the media mob was hammering on Matt Kenseth Friday along the themes of (a) how much Talladega can scramble the Chase standings and (b) how he, as the leader, has the most to lose of all the Chasers on Sunday.

The heat at the top, nowhere to go but down, and all that ...

He shrugged and said, "Well, I don't know what good it's going to do me to get freaked out about it right now." This was before practice began. Toyota Racing Development "has been working on engines, so hopefully we've got some speed when we get out there and draft a little bit today.

"If we don't, there's not really a lot I can do about it. And if we do, there's not really a lot I had to do with it."

Translation: Talladega is all horsepower (that is, as much as you can get out of a stifled restrictor-plate engine), almost no handling, and drivers often feel like passengers.

If he's bad, it's not his fault. If he's good, it's not to his credit.

No reason to get freaked out yet. Even from the top of the standings, whence he could topple Sunday -- again, through no fault or credit of his own -- by the luck of the draft and the almost inevitable multicar crashes.

He was 12th-fastest, at 199.492 mph, in the first practice, with another session to go on Friday.

So far, so-so. So what?

-- Ed Hinton

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Remembering 'Boss Hogg'

I'm a little lost around here. I've never been through a Talladega weekend without "Boss Hogg." That goes back to 1974, when he and I first set foot inside this mammoth racetrack.

Richard Braden, whom all the NASCAR insiders called Boss Hogg because of the no-nonsense, gruff way he ran the media facilities here, died Tuesday. He was 75.

He looked nothing like the Boss Hogg character of the old "Dukes of Hazzard" TV series. The TV version was fat and jowly. Our Boss had a rugged, hewn face and a salt-and-pepper mustache.

He suffered no fools. That's why he got the nickname, from longtime NASCAR writer Steve Waid, who first called him "Boss" and then "Boss Hogg" and we all picked it up, and it stuck for the rest of Braden's life.

He was from nearby Anniston, Ala. He was brought in by then-Talladega publicist Jim Hunter as a volunteer. He took command and kept order, just by his demeanor and his growl. He was here, every race, through last May. We could tell he wasn't well last spring. He was the first manager I met when I walked into the old Talladega press box in '74 -- and that was three Talladega press boxes and two infield media centers ago.

All day I've been somehow waiting to feel a clap on my shoulder from behind. It hasn't happened. Boss is gone.

-- Ed Hinton

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Dega 'a special place' for Junior

Talk about throwing your kid into deep water to see if he can swim naturally. Listen to this story from Dale Earnhardt Jr. that just popped out of nowhere Friday while he was reminiscing about Talladega.

"This was only the second track I ever drove on," he said. "I was racing street stocks at Concord [N.C., on a tiny 3/8-mile track.] They were testing down here ... Dad was driving.

"Dad called me at the dealership" at a maintenance department in North Carolina where Junior had been put to work. "I was changing oil.

"He told me to get my helmet and my [racing] suit and be at the airport [where Dale Sr.'s private jet was kept] the next morning. He said not to ask any questions or tell anybody where I was going. I knew I was going to Talladega but I didn't know why."

Because he'd been told to bring his gear, "I assumed I was going to drive a race car somewhere."

But then, Talladega Short Track, a 1/3-mile dirt oval, lies almost directly across the street from the mammoth, 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway. So who knew?

"We got here [inside the big track], and he told me to get my stuff on and get in the car and go out and run.

"And to hold it wide open -- that it was going to stick. And I remember going down the back straightaway and wondering if it was really gonna stick when I got into that corner, because it just didn't seem like it was possible."

It stuck. And Dale Earnhardt Jr. has felt at home on the biggest NASCAR track of all, ever since.

"This is a special place," he said.

-- Ed Hinton

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Gaughan movin' on up

Rental Cars for the Rich is expanding its business. RCR, doing business as Richard Childress Racing, announced Friday that Brendan Gaughan will move up to a full-time Nationwide ride next year, with Gaughan's family casino business as primary sponsor.

Gaughan's Truck ride with RCR is currently sponsored by his father's South Point Hotel and Casino, but the investment will grow with the move up to more races in a more costly series.

Gaughan isn't the only family-sponsored driver at RCR, of course. Paul Menard's Cup car is sponsored by his billionaire father's home-improvement chain.

Gaughan, 38, never has been at a loss for words -- for example, at the opening of Friday's announcement, he said, "You mean I'm not driving the 3 Cup car? Damn! Missed out again."

And he has never minded mixing it up with the media. So I asked him if he might be in position to advise Menard on how to deal with criticism about being sponsored by family money.

"I don't know if Paul needs any lessons on that," Gaughan said. "He's been dealing with that just as long as I have. ... I've dealt with that since I was 15 years old. I've dealt with that since I was a child.

"So I do not care what people want to say about that. I know how hard my father worked to earn that money. I know how hard I've worked to earn the money that I get. I appreciate it and respect it. And if people want to dislike you for the success of others, then I feel bad for them."

Arguably the freest-flowing optimist among all NASCAR drivers, Gaughan is winless in 17 starts for RCR in Trucks this year -- and hasn't won since 2003 -- yet projected the remainder of this season this way:

"We still have five shots at it and I plan on going out with at least a couple of wins this year."

Wow.

-- Ed Hinton

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