DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 19: David Ragan, driver of the #34 Front Row Motorsports Ford, stands on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 19, 2012 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Georgia racers Bill Elliott and David Ragan have taken quite different paths to the 2012 Daytona 500. Ragan knows he will drive in the race no matter what, giving him the opportunity to redeem himself for last year's error, while the legendary Elliott must race his way into the field Thursday afternoon.
Go to Mapquest and click "Get Directions. Enter Dawsonville as your starting point, Unadilla as your destination. The results will show three different paths that can get you from point A. to point B, seperated by right around 180 miles each.
For Dawsonville native Bill Elliott and Unadilla's David Ragan, their paths to the Daytona 500 have been - and remain - quite distant.
One knows he will start the race in a car that has shown respectable pace throughout Speedweeks. The other must qualify via Thursday's Gatorade Duel in an almost unsponsored machine that was one of the slowest cars in Daytona 500 time trials Sunday. Should he even make the race, he could potentially be replaced by his car owner, if that driver's car fails to make the show.
One would likely be stunned to find that the roles above are not filled by the driver you'd expect. It is Elliott, the NASCAR legend and one of Georgia's most-cherished favorite sons ever, who must fight tooth and nail Thursday to get his Toyota Camry into the field. Meanwhile, the comparatively unheralded Ragan is locked into the race. He was 15th-quickest in qualifying. Elliott, meanwhile, was an abysmal 43rd out of 49 cars.
Ragan knows he will race Sunday, making his first official start in Front Row Motorsports' No. 34 Ford Fusion. His one career victory to date came in the most recent points-paying event at Daytona, the July 2011 Coke Zero 400. After an illegal lane change on the next-to-last restart cost him a shot at winning the Daytona 500 last February, he is seeking redemption in the car that trailed only winner Trevor Bayne and runner-up Carl Edwards across the finish line.
Ragan's name swirled throughout the rumor mill in the offseason after his No. 6 Roush-Fenway Racing effort was mothballed due to loss of sponsorship. First he was rumored to James Finch's No. 51 Chevy. Then, once Kurt Busch and Roger Penske parted ways on December 5, he was the lead candidate for the No. 22 Dodge. When Penske picked A.J. Allmendinger instead, Ragan seemed destined to drive Allmendinger's old ride, the No. 43 Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports. Aric Almirola was tabbed for that seat, and his ex-Nationwide Series ride - owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr. - seemed to have Ragan's name on it until Camping World Truck standout Cole Whitt picked up the seat.
Finally, Ragan was named to race for Front Row as a teammate to David Gilliland - who was the driver that wheeled the 34 car to it's third-place finish in last year's 500 - and Tony Raines, one of three drivers outside the top-35 in owner points who made the show on speed Sunday. If fans are looking for a darkhorse winner, it very well could be the second-generation driver.
Elliott, meanwhile, needs no introduction. Take nearly any accomplishment one can achieve in Sprint Cup racing, and it's likely Elliott has done it at least once. Twice, he has taken the checkered flag in the Daytona 500. Until last week, he seemed content to remain on the sidelines, nurturing the career of his son Chase - who will likely follow his father into superstardom once he reaches the NASCAR legal age of 18 in November 2014.
Then came the announcement that Joe Nemechek, owner-driver of the No. 87 Toyotas, would field a second NEMCO Motorsports entry for Elliott. Nemechek had made the last two 500s on speed, creating optimism that Elliott could do the same. Sunday's time trials, however, saw both Camrys near the bottom of the speed charts. They will both compete in the second Gatorade Duel, giving them the opportunity to draft together in their bid to make the race. Elliott can pick up the past-champion's provisional if Terry Labonte races his way in Thursday, but he otherwise will have to finish in the top pair among go-or-go-home drivers in the Duel to make the show.
If Elliott races his way in and Nemechek doesn't, it is not out of the question that Nemechek would drive the car instead. Elliott would have to start the car if he makes the race via the champion's provisional.
Georgian race fans know they will have at least one local hero in the field, but Elliott's blue Toyota would leave a glaring absence in the grid if he fails to make the show. Ragan could temper that disappointment, however, if he can redeem himself for last year's error and win the Daytona 500.