How does a driver know when he has arrived in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series?
Simple; a top-10 finish no longer elicits a double take.
David Ragan isn't there yet, but he should be.
At 22, Ragan is in serious contention to make this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup. It's a far cry from where he was last year when, as a rookie, he was expected to be better than your average freshman, if only because he was taking control of the No. 6 car Mark Martin had driven since 1988.
Ragan didn't have a bad rookie campaign – he wound up 23rd in the standings – but it wasn't solid enough to silence the criticism over Jack Roush's decision to give the keys for one of NASCAR's legendary rides to a 21-year-old kid with limited experience.
Entering the 2007 season, Ragan had all of two Cup races, seven Nationwide races and 29 Craftsman Truck events under his belt, which, combined, produced eight top-10s, all in the truck series.
"I'm not even sure I know exactly what he did before this," said Roush Fenway teammate Carl Edwards, "but to come in here, to be put in the Sprint Cup, I think he's done a great job.
"I think at first he caught a lot of negative comments, and people were on him pretty hard, but he's 20 years old or whatever in the toughest form of motorsports in the world, and he's impressed me with how strong he is mentally."
Ragan got his job by beating the other 1,739 drivers who applied for Roush's 2005 Driver X program, which Roush created as an audition process for future drivers. Ragan's communication skills caught Roush's attention.
"He was clearly way ahead of his years," Roush said.
Roush awarded Ragan with a ride in the Craftsman Truck Series in 2006. After only 15 races, which produced six top-10 finishes, Roush had seen enough. He pegged Ragan as the heir apparent to Martin.
The son of a racer – his dad is Ken Ragan, a journeyman racer who made 50 Cup starts, scattered over eight years in the 1980s – Ragan made his way to NASCAR's elite series by way of Unadilla, Ga., population 2,772. Located about two hours south of Atlanta, straight down I-75, Ragan says it's a place that doesn't have much of anything but a place that teaches you good values and a good work ethic.
It also has armed him with some good stories, said Edwards, who has heard a ton of them flying with Ragan back and forth between the Cup and Nationwide events.
Edwards' favorite is the one about the time Ragan taught his grandparents how to use a computer. In particular, he was teaching his grandfather how to maneuver a mouse.
As Ragan's grandfather slid the mouse over a desk, it reached the corner of a wall, where it couldn't go any farther. The cursor, however, was still in the middle of the monitor.
"So he thinks we're going to have to move the desk to continue over on the mouse," Ragan said. "It's awesome to go back home."
Ragan still is looking for his first NASCAR win on any level, but by most accounts he will be the next first-time winner in the Cup Series. He has been close, posting top-fives at Talladega in April, Daytona in July and last weekend at Pocono Raceway.
That finish went a long way toward his quest to make this year's Chase, which would exceed Roush's preseason expectations. With five races to go before the Chase begins, Ragan is only 46 points behind Clint Bowyer, who's in 12th.
Over the previous four races, Ragan's average finish is 8.0. Odds are he won't keep up that pace over the next five races, which includes Watkins Glen and Bristol, two tracks where he has struggled in his short career.
"(David's) family raised him to be a stock car driver," Roush said, "and this is his shot."
But even if he falls short of making the Chase this season, it's clear Ragan is making the most of the shot Roush has given him. Come next year, expectations will be raised yet again, to a point where the only double take would be if he doesn't make the Chase.