For the past five seasons, David Ragan's goals as a race car driver have been to contend for event victories and put himself in position to make the Chase. At Roush Fenway Racing, a mammoth organization with a pair of championships at NASCAR's highest level, the intent was always to run up front with the best. While he didn't always get there, Ragan surely showed flashes -- like his victory at Daytona last summer, a Chase near-miss in 2008, and his bid for a wild card into the playoff in 2011.
But oh, how quickly perspectives can change. Ragan left Roush after his No. 6 team was effectively shut down because of a lack of sponsorship. After a dalliance with Penske Racing and the open seat in the No. 22 that ultimately went to A.J. Allmendinger, the 26-year-old Georgian ended up at Front Row Motorsports, which last year worked hard to keep both its drivers inside the top 35. Although David Gilliland scored a surprise third-place finish in the Daytona 500, owner Bob Jenkins' team is primarily self-funded, and the change of address also brings expectations very different from those Ragan was accustomed to at Roush.
For Front Row, Ragan's arrival is an absolute windfall -- the team gets a young race-winning driver known for his positive attitude and work with sponsors. For Ragan, the move continues a long relationship with Ford, with whom he operates a dealership in his hometown of Unadilla, Ga. But make no mistake about it, settling into that No. 34 car will also require a mental shift. Because his definition of a good day at the race track is about to change.
"We could win the Daytona 500 as easy as Jeff Gordon could," Ragan said, referring to the drafting style that new teammate Gilliland used to finish third last season. "... But Phoenix, Vegas, those are going to be tough races for us. We know our cars haven't been in the wind tunnel all offseason. We don't have new cars to take. Those high-speed downforce tracks will be our tough race tracks, but I feel like that's going to be one of my stronger points. I think it's going to be fun, to take what I've learned the last few years and bring it to those race cars. I feel more involved today than I ever have."
Not surprising, given that Roush has roughly 400 employees, and Ragan's job was to drive the car. At Front Row, which has considerably less manpower, he's involved in the process that determines things like setup strategies, qualifying packages, front-end geometries. In some ways it feels a little like 2004 when he was racing his own ARCA car, and Ragan seems to enjoy that aspect of it. But he also knows that Front Row isn't the kind of organization that changes crew chiefs or team engineers if the car is struggling. He knows he has to take care of equipment. He knows he's moving into a car that finished, on average, 31st last year with Travis Kvapil behind the wheel.
"I think realistically, we need to improve their starting positions and improve their finishes on average eight to 10 spots a week," Ragan said. "... We need to be in the mid-20s in points. With a team that's going to race every race, we're going to have the same team engineer, going to have same crew chief all year long. I've got to be smart on the race track. We can't afford to have DNFs. We're going to have some good runs when we run in the top 15 and the top 20, and we're going to have some days where we're a 25th-place car. But we don't need those DNFs. I think the goal for us, if we can finish in the top 25 in points, if we can lead some laps throughout the year, if we can get a few top-fives, a few top-10s , that would be a good season."
Jerry Freeze, Front Row's general manager, has known Ragan since the driver was 16 and buying parts for his ARCA car from the Petty Enterprises team where Freeze once worked. From a team perspective, Ragan is "a proven commodity with a lot of upside," Freeze said. It seems clear that Front Row would like very much for Ragan to become the face of their franchise, to become an ambassador to potential sponsors that might take some of the financial burden off Jenkins. Yet it's also obvious that while Front Row wants to improve, Ragan is facing very different expectations from what he was used to at Roush.
"It's going to be different," Freeze admitted. "We finished third at Daytona last year, and we thought we had just accomplished the biggest miracle in the world. David [Gilliland] finished 12th or 15th at Sonoma last year, and we felt great about that. We beat a lot of good cars that day. So, is David Ragan going to feel the same way? Last year that would have been a disappointing finish. So it will be interesting to see how he reacts to that."
How badly did Front Row want Ragan? The team began pursuing him in the fall of last year, before the end of the season, when the first rumblings about the No. 6 team shutting down began to emerge. Discussions between the two sides picked up around the finale at Homestead, but two weeks later Kurt Busch split from Penske, opening the seat in a strong No. 22 car. Talks with Front Row were put on hold as Ragan went after that position, which eventually went to Allmendinger.
Why didn't Ragan end up in the car? "I really don't know. I never got a clear answer from those guys," he said. "You have to think, A.J. is an open-wheel guy, has an open-wheel background, and those guys stick together, kind of like the short-track, stock car guys ... . I would think that our statistics and our age, a lot of that stuff runs parallel. So I really don't know. But when they told me that the job was no longer on the table, it wasn't my deal to dwell on. It was time for me to move on. Time will tell if that was a good or bad thing."
Ragan said he had some conversations with Richard Petty Motorsports that over the No. 43 that Allmendinger left behind, but nothing came of them. Another open ride, James Finch's No. 51, went to Busch. Ultimately it all led back to where it began, with Ragan and a Front Row team that was thrilled to hear from him again.
"It's a perfect fit," Freeze said. "I think his personality fits ours well ... and I really want to see him in a situation where he's the marquee attraction for our team, rather than just the young guy coming on who's the fourth guy in a stable. He seems to be the kind of guy where sometimes you have to put your arm around him a little bit, [but] I really think he's going to thrive in our situation. I think the pressure is on us to get the equipment he can take to the front."
Ragan said he didn't want to have to step back into the Nationwide or Camping World Truck circuits, and ultimately feels fortunate that he's in a car that plans to race the whole season -- rather than start and park -- and enters the 2012 campaign locked into the top 35 in owners' points. Now it's time to see how much further Ragan can take it.
"It's going to be a little different, but I'm looking forward to the challenge," he said. "And I'm still young. I'm not stuck in my ways. I can still learn and adapt to different things."