What’s next for David Ragan after MWR? Driver hopes new connections produce options

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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.”

NASCAR Clash heat race lineups

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and William Byron will start on the pole for their heat races Sunday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. 

There will be nine cars in each of the four heat races. Here’s a look at each of the those heat races.

Clash heat race starting lineups

Heat 1

This heat has four drivers who did not make last year’s Clash: Alex Bowman, Aric Almirola, Chris Buescher and Ty Dillon. Almirola starts second, Bowman third, Buescher eighth and Dillon ninth. This heat also has defending Clash winner and reigning Cup champion Joey Logano, who starts fifth.

Heat 2

Richard Childress Racing teammates Busch and Austin Dillon start 1-2. This race has five former champions: Busch, Kyle Larson (starting third), Kevin Harvick (fourth), Martin Truex Jr. (fifth) and Chase Elliott (eighth).

Heat 3

Toyota drivers will start first (Bell), second (Denny Hamlin) and fifth (Tyler Reddick). Ryan Blaney starts last in this heat after his fastest qualifying lap was disallowed Saturday.

Heat 4 

Byron will be joined on the front row by AJ Allmendinger in this heat. The second row will have Ross Chastain and Bubba Wallace.

The top five in each heat advances to Sunday night’s Clash. Those not advancing go to one of two last chance qualifying races. The top three in each of those races advances to the Clash. The 27 and final spot in the Clash is reserved for the driver highest in points who has yet to make the field.

Justin Haley tops field in Clash qualifying

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley posted the fastest lap in Saturday’s qualifying for the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Haley will start the first of four heats on the pole after a lap of 67.099 mph (13.413 seconds). The four heat races will be held Sunday afternoon, followed by two last chance qualifying races and then the Busch Clash on Sunday night.

Clash qualifying results

“I feel pretty confident about where we are,” Haley said. “I’m not sure why we’re so good here.”

The top four qualifiers will start on the pole for their heat race.

Kyle Busch, who was second on the speed chart with a lap of 66.406 mph, will start on the pole for the second heat. That comes in his first race with Richard Childress Racing after having spent the past 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Christopher Bell, third on the speed chart with a lap of 66.328 mph, will start on the pole for the third heat. William Byron, fourth in qualifying with a lap of 66.196 mph, will start on the pole in the fourth heat race.

The pole-sitters for each of the four heat races last year all won their heat. That included Haley, who was third fastest in qualifying last year and won the third heat from the pole.

Ty Gibbs was not allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments his team made while making repairs to his car after the door foam caught fire during practice. NASCAR deemed that the Joe Gibbs Racing team made adjustments to the car not directly related to the damage.

Ryan Blaney‘s fastest qualifying lap was disallowed after he stopped the car in Turn 4 and turned it around and to go back to the backstretch and build speed for his final lap. NASCAR disallowed the time from that final lap for the maneuver.

Section 7.8.F of the Cup Rule Book states: “Unless otherwise determined by the Series Managing Director, drivers who encounter a problem during Qualifying will not be permitted to travel counter Race direction.”

The top five finishers in each of the four 25-lap heat races advance to the Clash. The top three in the two 50-lap last chance races move on to the Clash. The final spot in the 27-car field is reserved for the driver highest in points not yet in the field.

Chase Briscoe, AJ Allmendinger in first on-track conflict of the season.

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LOS ANGELES — The first on-track conflict of the 2023 NASCAR Cup season?

Did you have Chase Briscoe and AJ Allmendinger?

They made contact during Saturday night’s practice session at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the Busch Light Clash.

Busch Clash practice results

Briscoe explained what happened from his point of view.

“(Allmendinger) was slowing down so much on the straightaway to get a gap (away from other cars),” Briscoe told Motor Racing Network. “I felt like I was beside him pretty far down the straightaway. I got in there a little hot for sure, but, honestly, I thought he was going to give it to me since we were in practice. Went into (Turn) 3 and he just drove me straight into the fence. Definitely frustrating. … Just unfortunate. We don’t have a single back-up car out there between the four of us at SHR. 

“Definitely will set us behind quite a bit. Just chalk it up in the memory blank.”

Asked what happened with Briscoe, Allmendinger told MRN: “He ran inside of me, so I made sure I paid him back and sent him into the fence.

“It’s practice. I get it, I’m struggling and in the way, but come barreling in there. I just showed my displeasure for it. That’s not the issue. We’re just not very good right now.”

Earlier in practice, Ty Gibbs had to climb out of his car after it caught on fire. Gibbs exiting the car safely. The Joe Gibbs Racing team worked on making repairs to his No. 54 car. NASCAR stated that the car would not be allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments, modifications not directly related to the damage.

NASCAR will not race at Auto Club Speedway in 2024

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LOS ANGELES — Auto Club Speedway will not host a NASCAR race next year because of plans to convert the 2-mile speedway into a short track.

It will mark only the second time the Cup Series has not raced at the Southern California track since first competing there in 1997. Cup did not race at the track in 2021 because of the pandemic.

Dave Allen, Auto Club Speedway president, also said Saturday that “it’s possible” that the track might not host a NASCAR race in 2025 because of how long it could take to make the conversion. 

MORE: Details for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum 

NASCAR came to the Fontana, California, track during the sport’s expansion in the late 1990s that also saw Cup debut at Texas (1997), Las Vegas (1998) and Homestead (1999).

Auto Club Speedway begins the West Coast swing this season, hosting the Cup Series on Feb. 26, a week after the Daytona 500. The series then goes to Las Vegas and Phoenix the following two weeks.

Auto Club Speedway has been among a favorite of drivers because of its aging pavement that put more of the car’s control in the hands of competitors. 

Allen said that officials continue to work on the track’s design. It is expected to be a half-mile track. With NASCAR already having a half-mile high-banked track (Bristol) and half-mile low-banked track (Martinsville), Allen said that a goal is to make Auto Club Speedway stand out.

“It has to make a statement, and making sure that we have a racetrack that is unique to itself here and different than any of the tracks they go to is very important,” Allen said. “Having said that, it’s equally important … to make sure that the fan experience part is unique.”

Kyle Larson, who won last year’s Cup race at Auto Club Speedway, said that he talked to Allen on Saturday was told the track project likely will take about 18 months. 

“I don’t know exactly the extent of what they’re doing with the track, how big it’s going to be, the shape or banking and all that, and I love the 2-mile track, but I think the more short tracks we can have, the better off our sport is going to be,” Larson said.

With Auto Club Speedway off the schedule in 2024, it would mean the only time Cup raced in the Los Angeles area would be at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. NASCAR has a three-year contract with the Coliseum to race there and holds the option to return.

Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum marks the second year of that agreement. Last year’s inaugural event at the Coliseum drew about 50,000 fans. NASCAR has not publicly stated if it will return to the Coliseum next year.