David Ragan spent Sunday flying home from the Snowball Derby, a prestigious late model race held annually in Pensacola, Fla., and his focus during the trip was a right-rear hub assembly that had broken down and knocked his car out of the event. Then he landed in Charlotte, flipped on his mobile telephone -- and suddenly realized he had much more pressing concerns.
"We land in Charlotte, and Twitter is blowing up, and we see reports that something is going to happen with the 22 program the following day," Ragan said. "At that point, certainly I think, man, I need to reach out to those guys, see if the reports are true, and see if I can get my name thrown in the hat."
Reports indeed proved true, and the following day former series champion Kurt Busch split with Penske Racing, vacating a seat in a No. 22 car that has proven capable of winning races and contending for the title on the Sprint Cup circuit. For a driver like Ragan, whose own No. 6 program at Roush Fenway had effectively been shut down due to the departure of former car sponsor UPS, it was an out-of-nowhere gift of an opportunity, and he's wasted no time putting himself in play for the ride.
Ragan, who had a few years left on his contract at Roush, asked for and received his release in order to pursue the No. 22 vacancy, and has alerted Penske officials of his interest.
"I've reached out to them and explained my situation to those guys -- hey, I'm a free agent. I don't have any obligations left. Let's sit down and talk," he said. "They've got a lot going on, not with just the 22 program, but they've got Nationwide programs and IndyCar programs. I'm kind of waiting for them to give me a timetable and say, hey -- here's our plan. They know where I stand, and time will tell what happens next."
Although personality conflicts and off-track issues proved his undoing with Penske, Busch did set a very high bar in the car, winning 10 times and making the Chase in four of his six years behind the wheel of the No. 22 car. Ragan earned his first career Sprint Cup victory at Daytona in July of this past season, and although he's twice come close to making the Chase, he's never qualified for the playoff. Still, he believes his combination of on-track potential and off-track demeanor fits with what Penske is looking for.
"I feel like I'm a capable driver to win races at a lot of different race tracks," said Ragan, 25. "Given the right situation, I can come into a program and we can contend for a Chase spot. And I think certainly that's a solid program that has a lot of respect around the garage. I feel like they're going to be fair working with a driver next year, and I hope that's me. I think my off-track record speaks for itself, and I look to the next challenge and hope to improve my on-track record."
It's been a roller-coaster last few weeks for Ragan, who had his engine fail in his final ride in the No. 6 car last month, had his team dismantled a few days afterward, and since then has been trying to put something together for next year. He returned from the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway hopeful that something could be done to salvage his No. 6 team at Roush, but it quickly became obvious that there wasn't.
"When we got back home and knew there was just nothing in the pipeline, I knew that things were going to be difficult," Ragan said. "A lot of guys on our team left to go to other places, some got let go, some got moved around. At that point, I realized that I really needed to pursue some other opportunities. It didn't look like there was going to be anything at Roush for me to drive."
So, he began to look around. There wasn't much available, given that a tight sponsorship market has led to contraction within the NASCAR garages, forcing some teams to scale back. Ragan isn't alone -- other race-winning drivers like Brian Vickers and David Reutimann are in the same situation, because of similar events within their own former teams. Because of all that, Ragan said he was willing to take a step down into a lower series, realizing he was young enough to make the climb back up and still be in the prime of his career.
"My mindset has always been [to find] something competitive to go out and be competitive to win races," he said. "There weren't many competitive rides available in the Sprint Cup Series. ... I was looking at a Nationwide program, possibly some Truck races, anything to be competitive. The mindset I had was, just being 25 years old, having won in the Nationwide Series and the Sprint Cup Series, I felt like I was young enough that I could take a step back, work hard, stay in the sport, and I could rebound to a bigger, stronger team all by the age of 30 if I did what I needed to do. I was willing to fight the fight that was in front of me."
Now, the fight in front of him involves the No. 22 car. "Sometimes things happen for a reason," Ragan said. "... I'm just thankful for an opportunity to talk to these guys, and we'll see what happens."