Unadilla, Ga. native David Ragan finds himself locked in a battle with International superstar and former Formula 1 driver Juan Pablo Montoya for the NASCAR Rookie of the Year title, a race that is currently separated by a mere 15 points.
Both drivers will have to be on top of their game to maintain their positions at the top of the rookie standings when the NEXTEL Cup Series rolls into Atlanta Motor Speedway for the Oct. 28 Pep Boys Auto 500.
Ragan and Montoya may have a different dialect, hailing from different parts of the globe, but they agree on the level of importance and prestige that comes with earning the Raybestos Rookie of the Year title.
"Winning the rookie of the year title in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series is certainly one of the biggest goals we sought after this year," Ragan said. "You look at the guys that have won the title in the past, guys like David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, my teammate Matt Kenseth, those are all guys I look up to. They've all been real strong rookies and certainly showed a lot of promise after winning Rookie of the Year."
Thirty-two year old Montoya agrees with Ragan but said he also finds claiming the title important because of the recognition it gives his team.
"I think earning something like Rookie of the Year is really important," said the Columbia native, Montoya. "If you look at the guys that have won it in the past, it's an impressive list. It's not just important to me, but to everyone involved with the race team.
"If I win the title it will be the fourth Rookie of the Year award for my sponsor Texaco/Havoline and the second for my Crew Chief Donnie Wingo and the team. That means a lot to those guys. They work hard, so any recognition we can get as a team is invaluable."
Ragan, who grew up racing around the Thunder Ring, AMS' frontstretch quarter-mile oval, in a Legends car, like Montoya, only has one start in a NEXTEL Cup car at NASCAR's fastest track. Each raced in the March Kobalt Tools 500 with Montoya scoring his first top-five finish in NEXTEL Cup competition.
"I wait to get back to Atlanta Motor Speedway," Montoya said. "Atlanta was my first big top-five finish in NEXTEL Cup. All I can hope is to improve on that finish from the spring, but a top-five would still be nice to repeat."
Although the 21-year-old Ragan, finished 33rd in his Atlanta NEXTEL Cup debut, both he and Montoya are optimistic about returning to AMS and will need a strong finish to catapult themselves towards the top spot in the Rookie of the Year standings.
"Going back to Atlanta Motor Speedway is going to be a lot of fun," Ragan said. "I feel that I'm a lot more comfortable now in the mile-and-a-half cars than I was back in March. We have had some strong runs on tracks like Atlanta this year and I think our cars are a lot better; certainly I'm a lot better driver."
AMS, known for creating speeds in excess of 200 mph doesn't intimidate Montoya or Ragan. Both drivers readily admit the action at AMS is among the best in NASCAR.
"Atlanta Motor Speedway is an awesome race track," Ragan said. "It's got a lot of speed and you have to carry a lot of momentum, making it a lot of fun for all of us drivers. It's got three grooves for racing and that always produces some great excitement towards the end of the race."
"I wasn't expecting the track to be that fast," Montoya said. "Since I didn't have any preconceived notions of where to run, I was able to run all over the track and search for the best lines. I think people were really surprised to see me run as high as I was on the track earlier this year. That makes the racing very exciting."
Fans can see Montoya and Ragan battle for rookie supremacy during the Oct. 28 Pep Boys Auto 500 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup race. Tickets are available by calling the Atlanta Motor Speedway ticket office at 877-9-AMS-TIX, 770-946-4211 or by visiting http://www.atlantamotorspeedway.com/