David Ragan has been around long enough to know the realities of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
When it comes to race teams, there are haves and have-nots. There may be a few sprinkled in between, but mostly teams either have what it takes to be a top contender week in and week out in the series or they don’t.
Ragan is one David who has witnessed both sides. He has been on the side of Goliath as a driver for Roush Fenway Racing, and now he rides as David in more than name only as a driver for Front Row Motorsports.
So he knows the truth. You can catch lightning in a bottle once, sure. But the rest of the time the guy with the deepest pockets is going to win.
Life with Front Row, which very rarely finishes anywhere near the front row, is not quite a day-to-day, race-to-race existence. But it’s close. Whereas elite Sprint Cup teams require well in excess of $20 million to run a season in which they can expect to contend for a championship, Front Row owner Bob Jenkins attempts to do the entire 36-race schedule on a budget more along the lines of $6 million to $7 million per the Los Angeles Times.
Jenkins once told Morris News Service, “In the racing graveyard, my epitaph won’t be I won the most races or championships. But I want to be known as a team that did the most with the least.”
Imagine Jenkins’ joy, then, when Ragan shocked the Sprint Cup world and won the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway recently. Ragan was pushed to the win at the end by Front Row teammate David Gilliland, who finished second to give Jenkins his first one-two finish in auto racing, his first victory, and doubling the amount of top-five finishes his teams have registered in more than 400 starts in the Sprint Cup Series.
Ragan earned $373,108 for the victory, Gilliland $235,153 for finishing second. Jenkins is a millionaire who owns more than 100 Taco Bell and Long John Silver’s franchise restaurants, but those were the two biggest paydays he had ever seen in racing – and they came at the end of the same rain-delayed day.
“It certainly was a big win for myself and for the whole Front Row Motorsports team,” Ragan said.
It earned Ragan a spot in the Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway two weeks later, as CSX, normally an associate sponsor, readily agreed to step up and serve as Ragan’s primary sponsor for the night. To the victors, even the occasional ones, go at least some spoils.
As part of the CSX Play It Safe Program promoting safety around railway crossings, the hood of Ragan’s No. 34 race car read: “David Beats Goliath and Still Brakes for Trains.”
But can David beat Goliath again? Well, anything can and often does happen in the restrictor-plate races at Daytona and Talladega. Those are the only two places Ragan has ever won – with his first victory coming with Roush Fenway in the July Daytona race in 2011.
A lot of people have asked, "What was more special? Getting that first win as a Sprint Cup driver or getting Front Row Motorsports their first win as an organization?" Ragan, who ran a full Cup schedule in a Roush car from 2007 to 2011, said “I think this one means more – because at Roush Fenway Racing I was expected to win. I was expected to contend week after week. Front Row Motorsports, we expect to be able to contend and maybe, if everything goes right, be in position to win.”
The difference between being David and not Goliath in NASCAR means flying commercial instead of in a private jet, racing sometimes with used cars, scuffed-up tires, and pit crews exhausted from doubling as shop men during the week. It means little or no time testing while the bigger teams test as much as their tight schedules allow. It means racing with no primary sponsor sometimes, or grabbing an unusual one at the last minute – like last year in Las Vegas when Ragan drove the “Rick Santorum for President” No. 34 Ford Fusion.
Yet Ragan has found that there is a certain charm to it.
“It is a less pressure being with a smaller team, and it’s more fun,” Ragan said. “You get to know all the guys better and certainly you have a better relationship with your group. That’s an important thing, I think. You get to sit in on production meetings with the general manager, the crew chief and the shop foreman and see how some decisions are made.
“It puts you a little closer to it in a tighter group – as opposed to Roush where you’re just the driver. You’re one of 500 employees. They have their roles and you have your role. I know it’s made me a smarter individual. It’s been interesting to see both sides of it for sure.”
The bottom line: Front Row Motorsports is in a unique position. If Ragan somehow wins another restrictor-plate race this season and climbs into the top 20 in points at the same time, he could really shock the racing world and make a Chase for the Sprint Cup as a wild card.
But guess what? For better or worse, that likely would be his ticket out of the world of Davids and back into the more-pressurized world of Goliaths. It’s where all drivers ultimately want to be. And even as the glow from his Talladega victory still warms his heart and those of underdogs everywhere, Ragan is willing to admit it.
“I want to contend for more wins. I want to be a Chase contender. And you want to win a championship,” he said. “I think if I can get in the right situation, I can be a Chase driver. I can get on a roll and contend for a championship. If I can help Front Row Motorsports get to that point, that would be one of the best stories ever.
“But you never know what the future may bring. I’m 27 years old and I’ve got a long time left in this sport. I’m just going to keep digging. If I can get to where I want to go with Front Row Motorsports, there wouldn’t be a story any better than that. But if I have to move on with another team down the road, then that’s OK, too.”
That’s the real Catch-22. If David really does get around to slaying Goliath, and he does it more than once, David ain’t sticking around to play for the underdogs a whole lot longer.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes for article were obtained first-hand by writer.
Follow Joe Menzer on Twitter @OneMenz