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Lesser-known Drivers Face Uphill Battle for Recognition Even After Big Wins

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COMMENTARY | Upon realizing I was a NASCAR fan, a work associate of mine asked me: "Who won that race Sunday at Talladega? Did they ever restart?"

"Yes," I replied. "They got the whole race in, and David Ragan won."

"So he won both the Nationwide and Cup races. That's pretty good," he retorted.

To which, of course, I had to explain to him that, in fact, David Ragan and Regan Smith were two different people.

Later Monday, I also was made aware that David Ragan had been been receiving congratulations on Twitter after his Saturday win at Talladega -- except, of course, that was Regan Smith who won that race.

This is all in good fun of course, as I suppose a little confusion is to be expected with the name similarity, but it underscores a point about everyone who isn't one of the top dozen or so drivers in NASCAR and don't have a lot of name recognition: Most people really don't know who they are.

I'm willing to bet that even among NASCAR fans, the amount of people who are so into the sport that they can name all the regular competitors from the smaller teams is pretty small. They root for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart (and yes, they root Danica Patrick on even when she's running 36th). They're not screaming out J.J. Yeley's name, or Josh Wise's name, or Scott Speed's name, or David Stremme's name, or Landon Cassill's name, or ... even David Ragan or Regan Smith's names.

Lesser-known drivers like this have a challenge that is pretty clear-cut: Start competing up front and winning races, even in lesser equipment, and people WILL be cheering you on.

The best example of this is Brad Keselowski. He is the reigning Sprint Cup champion, but prior to his controversial win a few years back at Talladega when he sent Carl Edwards airborne and into the catch fence, he was just another Nationwide driver that only diehard fans really knew was destined for great things. That one highlight, and that first win while driving for an underfunded James Finch team, was the beginning of the momentum that propelled Keselowski to his current heights.

But alas, this sort of fabled rise from a great victory, especially a restrictor plate victory, is an extreme rarity, and few will go on to succeed like Brad has done.

While no one doubts David Ragan is a great guy and has tremendous talent as a racecar driver, the fact that his two Cup wins are both on plate tracks automatically discount their opinion of him as an overall driver (let's call it the Michael Waltrip rule; you have to do good elsewhere besides plate tracks to be considered a great driver).

And I have to say that in some fashion I agree with this assessment. The numbers don't lie. Most surprise winners at plate tracks rarely go on to do much else on the other non-plate tracks, because there's so much more reliance on the driver on these other tracks and that's why the big names tend to shine there -- it's better equipment too, of course, but that's not the whole tale.

When Regan Smith won in dominating fashion at Darlington (definitely a driver's track) while still driving for the Furniture Row team, he caught some brief attention and had high hopes for the future. But despite being a great racer (see his move at the end of Saturday's Nationwide race for proof of that), he's struggled since that win in the Cup series.

David Ragan has a similar story. He was brought up through the ranks quickly, perhaps too quickly even by his own admission, and struggled to be consistently good even though he was driving quality Roush cars. He was able to get one restrictor plate win while with Roush, and pulled off a second one on Sunday with the upstart Front Row Motorsports team, but has never been consistent enough to garner any significant attention from the fans or announcers during a race.

This all brings me to a key point: The only way that a lesser-known driver can stay in the minds of NASCAR's fans is by doing something they have no right to be doing, by shocking the NASCAR world with their accomplishments. Ragan started that journey at Talladega with his unexpected win, but if he falls back to finishing 30th each week, he'll quickly be forgotten.

I think of the 1980s in Formula 1, when a young driver named Ayrton Senna started pulling off amazing runs and finishes while driving for a Toleman team that had no business competing with the sport's top names. Needless to say, he was quickly snatched up by the top teams and went on to be a champion.

The same story can be said about Fernando Alonso, who put in respectable runs in a terrible Minardi car when he began his Formula career as a 19-year-old.

Getting back to NASCAR, a team like Front Row still has a long way to go, and are kind of in the same boat as its drivers Ragan and Gilliland. Nobody other than the sport's most hardcore fans really knows who they are. Sure, they have made strides over the years and are now able to say they are winners at the Cup level, but they fade into the background most race weekends. To be fair, that's because the team is way underfunded -- with owner Bob Jenkins footing much of the bill along the way.

It's a great thing to see them get a win (the whole David vs. Goliath them can be extended to the team level, not just the drivers named David), but we'll see if this can be spark for Front Row. I love the fact that his team has continued to plug away and race each week, not starting and parking like so many others have in recent years, and if they are lucky, this little bolt of lightning Ragan has provided via this Talladega win will attract someone with some money to infuse the team with a jolt of competition.

A new face in the crowd competing for wins each week would be a welcome addition, and a little money would go a long way toward making that more possible..

But to be realistic, the odds that Front Row will be competitive at Darlington are between slim and none -- because money still does rule the sport and they are dwarves compared to a Hendrick or Roush or Childress or Gibbs or Penske operation.

They're a good and positive story to root for, and I'll be very happy if Jenkins' team can continue to succeed beyond all expectations, but the odds are about on par with the chances that millions will soon cheer on Regan Smith and David Ragan at the same level they root for Jeff Gordon or Denny Hamlin: Not likely.

Breakout stars can come from this mass of unknown drivers, but the reality is that more often than not, David Ragan, Regan Smith and a bevy of others will remain interchangable field fillers in the minds of most casual NASCAR fans.

In the end, though, it still works out pretty good for these guys even if they never get to the next level of popularity and fame in the sport. They're not superstars and probably won't be, but they're still really good at what they do and are making millions competing in the sport they love, and who could really ask for more than that?

Matt Myftiu lives in Michigan, has been a walking encyclopedia of NASCAR since immersing himself in the sport over 15 years ago, and has worked as a journalist for two decades. His blog on the sport, NASCAR: Beyond the Track, has been published by The Oakland Press for the past 5 years. Follow him on Twitter @MattMyftiu.

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