HAMPTON, Ga. – David Ragan is helping make the best of an unfortunate situation for Kyle Busch and Joe Gibbs Racing but believes it’s a positive regardless for Front Row Motorsports.
Ragan began driving Busch’s No. 18 Toyota in a test session Thursday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. As Busch recovers from the compound fracture in his right leg suffered in an Xfinity Series crash at Daytona International Speedway, Ragan will be the substitute for several races.
Though the team hasn’t released a schedule (and Ragan said Thursday there is “no hard timetable”), sources have told NASCAR Talk the plan is to keep Ragan in the car for nine races through the May 9 race at Kansas Speedway (and then turn the car over to JGR developmental driver and Camping World Truck Series winner Erik Jones).
Ragan said he was approached Monday afternoon by JGR after the team learned he wasn’t committed for an entire season in Front Row’s No. 34 Ford, which still is seeking sponsorship.
“I told them I’d have interest if we can get all the parties to mutually agree on a package that benefits us all,” he said. “This is an unfortunate situation that their guy is injured. I’m grateful to get in one of the premier rides in the sport. I can see where I stand in my career. It’s been a few years since I’ve been with one of the larger teams.”
Ragan, 29, raced full-time for Roush Fenway Racing from 2006-11, winning at Daytona (summer race) in his last season with RFR and notching a best points finish of 13th in ‘08. He has spent the past three seasons at Front Row, scoring an upset victory at Talladega in May ’13.
Ragan expects to return to Front Row whenever his interim situation ends at JGR, but he said team owner Bob Jenkins and general manager Jerry Freeze were a little surprised by the pitch.
Ragan said the deal wouldn’t have worked if he had a fully sponsored season at Front Row, and sponsor CSX (which has an eight-race deal) helped move some of its races to accommodate his JGR races. (It also helped that Ford had no objections to a move to Toyota, though the manufacturer would have been limited in its ability to block it given Front Row’s status as a customer team that doesn’t enjoy the support of Team Penske, Roush Fenway Racing or Richard Petty Motorsports.) “I had to look at my career and my opportunities,” Ragan said. “I couldn’t let it pass. I’m very fortunate they were open to the idea. They are happy for me to be in a situation with quality people and a quality team.
“The stars just aligned right, and I think it can be a good thing for everyone. I’m going to work hard to be a good teammate and a good driver. I’ll only be better when I get back in the 34 car. And when Kyle’s back, he’s the man. Our sport is better with him. NASCAR needs Kyle Busch.”
Ragan said Front Row’s underdog team (which also fields Fusions for Cole Whitt and David Gilliland) might gain some ancillary benefits through increased exposure that could generate sponsor interest.
“There’s a new fan base I’ll touch,” he said.
Ragan experienced new methods Thursday with JGR’s four-car powerhouse having access to more technology for data acquisition during the test (which permitted computers and telemetry unlike typical NASCAR practices).
“They have a lot of smart people,” Ragan said. “It opens a lot more doors. You can learn a lot more over the course of a weekend.”
He also has some powerful allies in Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth. As former teammates at Roush, Edwards and Kenseth both vouched for Ragan’s ability.
“When his name was brought up, a lot like when they brought up Matt Crafton (who subbed for Busch in the Daytona 500), I thought, ‘Man, that’s a great guy to be in that race car,’” Edwards said. “So, yeah, my vote was to put David in the car and the way I understand it, everybody felt the same way.”
Said Ragan of Edwards and Kenseth: “I had a good relationship with them. I don’t think I’d be in the No. 18 Camry without their help.”
Now that he is, the focus turns to maximizing his results. The Unadilla, Ga., native will make his JGR debut in Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at a hometown track where he has raced since childhood, and his expectations are high. He didn’t dismiss the possibility of scoring a win – which would create an unusual situation in which he could make the Chase for the Sprint Cup and run for the championship over the final 10 races while being in a Front Row car.
“It is different when you are driving for a different team, and you realize the second half of the season, you’re going to be running with another group of cars,” he said. “It may be a situation where you get a win and could get into the Chase, but let’s not count our chickens before they hatch.
“That’s a great scenario that if it played out, would be a lot of fun and something cool to talk about.”