The connections made this season by David Ragan might have been as important as the cars he has driven to showcase his talent.
With Michael Waltrip Racing shutting its doors after the Sprint Cup season, Ragan’s NASCAR future is far from certain. He has made a solid impression in qualifying the No. 55 Toyota, earning top-five starting spots in three of the past seven races, but a 12th at Daytona International Speedway has been his best finish since joining MWR three months ago.
It’s been a transient season for Ragan, who started the season-opening Daytona 500 for Front Row Motorsports and followed with a nine-race stint in place of injured Kyle Busch in the No. 18 Toyota of Joe Gibbs Racing.
There are benefits to bouncing around, though, for a driver whose movement was limited for much of his career (with Roush Fenway Racing from 2006-11 and Front Row from 2012-14).
“I’ve met some new people with these opportunities that I didn’t know six months ago, or a year ago,” he told NASCAR Talk in a Saturday interview before the Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. “In the NASCAR world, a lot of it is who you know, who has a connection here or there.”
“I got to work with (No. 18 crew chief) Adam Stevens. Coach Gibbs, a legend in the sports world. I got to know some of the people at (sponsors) M&Ms Mars and Interstate Batteries. And got to work with Michael and the Aaron’s team. Some of the Toyota people, I didn’t know. I’d only driven for Ford my entire career. To open that door and see how that works to run their racing program, it’s been eye opening, and I’ve really enjoyed it. I’ve made some good friends. Some guys who were practically neighbors, and I didn’t really know who they were. Definitely, I made some friends I’ll have for life.”
He also has been exposed to new technology, crediting extra time spent in Toyota Racing Development’s simulator with helping fine-tune his setups to arrive at the track better prepared (and in better position to qualify well).
Ragan said there are no regrets about leaving Front Row (where he won at Talladega Superspeedway in May 2013) because he wasn’t guaranteed sponsorship for a full season.
“If it had been a full-time deal, then I would have signed up for that at the beginning of the year,” he said. “I wouldn’t have left. But at the time, I didn’t know, and it allowed me to do something different.
“I’m a lot smarter driver than I was six months ago because I got to work with some really smart people who have a lot of resources at their disposal. It’s helped me be a better driver for whatever that next situation may bring.”
Ragan would like to remain in the Sprint Cup Series but said he would consider a competitive ride in the Xfinity or Camping World Truck series.
“Where I’m at in my career, it’s more about being competitive than just making a paycheck or being a Sprint Cup driver,” said Ragan, who has two Cup wins and has driven full time in the series since 2007. “I don’t want to be in a position where I’m 35th in qualifying, and you finish 30th every week. That’s no fun. It’s a way to make a living and stay involved, and it’s better than the alternative of nothing, but I don’t want to be in that position.
“So I’ll try really hard to try to find something competitive in one of the top three series where I feel like I can go out and win some races and race for a championship.”
A key could be bringing sponsorship. Aaron’s, which backs the No. 55, hasn’t decided on its 2016 plans but said “NASCAR will be an important part of our future” in a release last week.
Would the Atlanta-based company be interested in staying with a driver from Unadilla, Ga.?
“There may be a chance,” Ragan said. “I’m sure they’ve got a lot of things they’ve got to go through and a process that involves looking at their program and what kind of money they spend and where.
“I hope I have a good chance to make my case and to be with them in the future. They’re a great company. They’ve been around NASCAR for a long time.”
Ragan, who turns 30 in December, is hoping to stick around for a while, too. He hopes that posting solid results alongside championship-caliber teammates such as Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Clint Bowyer will help make his case.
“Hopefully, it’s that David Ragan is a good driver and good spokesperson who takes care of his equipment and can get out of a race car what one of the best drivers can,” he said. “I’ve had some of the best teammates in the garage. I’ve held my own and did well and have done a good job being a teammate. Hopefully that will take notice around the garage.
“Having that right program that is funded (with) good employees, good manufacturing support and a good driver. You have to have everything come together. Hopefully I can be a part of one of those puzzles somewhere.”