Joe Gibbs Racing ride is a chance of a lifetime for David Ragan.
ATLANTA – David Ragan’s second chance is not lost on the driver.
The 29-year-old second generation racer from Unadilla, Georgia, is expected to drive the No. 18 M&Ms Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing for the next nine races while Kyle Busch recovers from injuries sustained in last weekend’s XFINITY Series season opener.
Ragan, who was once on NASCAR’s fast track with Roush Fenway Racing, hit a bump in the road when UPS significantly cut its sponsorship after the 2011 season. With a win on his resume, plenty of Sprint Cup teams had interest. Ragan was one of the top two candidates considered for the No. 22 Team Penske ride at the time.
But after five seasons with Roush, pundits pondered why Ragan had not produced better results? Unlike his high-profile teammates, Ragan never made the Chase field and the numbers simply weren’t there.
Biding his time
Ragan refused to give up. He aligned with the underfunded and undermanned Front Row Motorsports. In his second season with the Bob Jenkins-owned organization – and the fifth year FRM fielded full-time teams – Ragan drove the No. 34 Ford to Victory Lane. The win was Ragan’s second and one of NASCAR’s top feel good stories of 2013.
Last year, Ragan’s again appeared on the short list for a ride. This time with Richard Petty Motorsports. The seat went to Sam Hornish Jr. – another driver looking for a second chance.
Ragan kept pounding with FRM but scored just one top 10 in 2014. He lost his crew chief Jay Guy at the end of the year and finished a career-low 34th in the point standings. Ragan knew the resources didn’t exist for the No. 34 Ford to compete full-time in 2015.
Our situation at Front Row this year was a little iffy on whether we were going to be able to run the entire schedule.
"Our situation at Front Row this year was a little iffy on whether we were going to be able to run the entire schedule,” Ragan said. “We had some good sponsorship with some of our partners – CSX and KFC for the Daytona 500.
“I got a call from one of the management at Joe Gibbs Racing on Monday afternoon and they just asked if I had any interest in talking to them. They had heard that I wasn't committed or didn't have a firm commitment for the full, entire Sprint Cup season. I told them that I would have some interest if we could get all the parties to mutually agree on a package that would benefit us all.”
Not standing in his way…
Ragan says FRM was “a little surprised” when he presented the opportunity but realized it was something the driver couldn’t pass up. He credits management, the manufacturers and the sponsors of both companies “for making it happen”. With the sport trending toward teens and 20-somethings on the opposite side of the age scale of Ragan, filling in the No. 18 could be his last shot at an A-list ride.
“Certainly, this is an unfortunate situation where their guy is injured and I'm grateful for the opportunity to get in one of the premiere rides in our sport for a little while to kind of see where I stand in my career as a driver,” Ragan said.
“It's been a few years since I've been with one of the larger teams. I'm grateful that all the parties involved really worked hard and it all can benefit us in a lot of different ways – thankful to them for that.
“It all really happened quick – Monday night and Tuesday obviously to be down here a day early for practice. A lot of the people involved had to have some give and take and it worked out great.”
Vote of confidence
Leading the effort to enlist Ragan’s services were his former teammates Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards, who the driver says “certainly played a key role” in “putting in a good word” for the driver.
My vote was to put David in the car and the way I understand it, everybody felt the same way.
"David has a lot of experience,” Edwards said. “He's a great teammate and when his name was brought up, I thought, 'Man, that's a great guy to be in that race car.' So, yeah, my vote was to put David in the car and the way I understand it, everybody felt the same way.
“It's not a good position to be in to have to go find a driver, but everybody is really excited about having David here."
Busch, who along with his wife Samantha, are good friends with Ragan’s, added to the recommendation list.
Obviously I was teammates for a few years with Carl and Matt and really had a good relationship with them and I think that they've seen that transition from one team to another and so I don't think I would be in the 18 M&M's Camry without their help.
"Obviously I was teammates for a few years with Carl and Matt and really had a good relationship with them and I think that they've seen that transition from one team to another and so I don't think I would be in the 18 M&M's Camry without their help,” Ragan said. “We've all got to work together, so grateful for that.”
Getting up to speed
The Sprint Cup test at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Thursday could not have come at a better time for Ragan and the No. 18 team to get acquainted and work on communication. The exercise also enabled the driver to acclimate to the new rules package that was introduced for the 2015 season.
Ragan, who was 15th on the speed chart (29.644-seconds, 187.019 mph) during the first session and 19th quick (29.788- sec., 186.178mph) in the second. He described the test as “great and really uneventful”.
“Just learning the Joe Gibbs Racing bunch and their process, how they conduct business on a practice day and a race day,” Ragan said. “We were fortunate to have a few hours today where we could hot lap our M&M's Crispy Camry and just really enjoy getting to the race track. It's been a busy week and working through a lot of details.
“Thoughts are with Kyle (Busch) this evening and his wife Sam as they're back home and certainly I'll probably give Kyle a call this evening and touch base with him.
"Atlanta Motor Speedway is one of my favorite tracks to come to for a lot of reasons, but the race track is in great shape. We have a lot of speed and the tires fall off throughout the run, so a lot of characteristics that make it fun to drive. A lot of fun to hit the track today. The weather worked out just perfect and was glad to make a few laps for sure."
On a mission
Ragan’s top finish on the 1.5-mile oval is eighth in both the Cup and Xfinity Series. This weekend he’ll have plenty of support from family and friends at his home track. But the driver once known as the “Thrilla from Unadilla” is keeping focused on the task at hand.
“I'm certainly going to learn a lot and really work hard to be a better driver and a good teammate these next several weeks,” Ragan said.”I think I'll only be better when I get back in that 34 car later on this year. My job is to do the best job I can for Joe Gibbs Racing and M&M's and Toyota and that's I intend to do.
“When Kyle's back, he's certainly the man and our sport is better with him. NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing needs Kyle Busch out here on the race track. When he's back, I'll return to the 34 car with CSX and hopefully be a better driver for my experience here."