But Ragan persevered and, now in his second full season on the Cup circuit, the Roush Fenway Racing driver quietly has moved into NASCAR's upper-crust neighborhood with the sport's biggest stars.
The Georgia native has yet to win a Cup race, but he's 13th in the point standings. And it's the top 12 drivers after 26 races that get to compete for the Chase for the Cup championship during the final 10 races of the year.
Ragan had been 12th in points until Sunday's Coca-Cola 600, when a combination of Kasey Kahne's victory and a misjudged pit-stop call on Ragan's No. 6 Ford enabled Kahne to climb into the 12th spot, 56 points above Ragan.
Even so, Ragan turned in another strong performance at Lowe's Motor Speedway. After qualifying fifth, he ran in the top 10 for much of the long race before finishing 12th. He also led a lap to gain five bonus points.
A lanky and unassuming 22-year-old, Ragan displays none of the bravado of, say, Kyle Busch, who already has three wins this season.
Yet Ragan said he was gradually earning the respect of Busch, Stewart and his other rivals.
"I do get a little more respect out there," he said. "I've certainly got a long ways to go, but we're on the right track."
Ragan started the year poorly, with a next-to-last finish at the Daytona 500. But with a team led by crew chief Jimmy Fennig, he has finished in the top 15 in nearly every race since, including a fourth at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway and a fifth at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway two weeks ago.
"Anything your second time around is a lot easier," he said of this season. "We've been qualifying a lot better, so we've had better track position, better pit-stall selection, so everything has seemed to happen a little easier and a little smoother."
Ragan is the son of former NASCAR driver Ken Ragan, who made 50 starts in the Cup series in the 1980s. David Ragan made his 50th start Sunday.
Under Ken's guidance, David began driving small so-called Bandolero race cars at age 11 and eventually cut his teeth in the ARCA developmental stock-car series and NASCAR's Craftsman Truck and Nationwide series.
He secured the truck ride in 2005 by winning an audition with Roush Fenway, then was tapped to step into the No. 6 Ford Sprint Cup car that had been driven for years by the popular Mark Martin.
Martin now drives part-time for Dale Earnhardt Inc.
"Going into the 6 car, I never really took the attitude of, 'Hey, here I am trying to replace Mark Martin,' " Ragan said. "I've just tried to do the best job that I can and keep the sponsors happy and try to keep the fans excited about the No. 6 car."
And while Ragan's under-the-radar style isn't prompting observers to give him nicknames, like they do with "Wild Thing" Kyle Busch, comments such as the one Stewart made two years ago aren't popping up any longer, either.
"I've certainly got a long ways to go, but we're on the right track," Ragan said. "We've just got to keep doing the right things and eventually we'll be where we need to be."