2008 Ride: No. 6 Roush Fenway Ford
2008 Sponsor: AAA
2008 Owners: Geoff Smith, Jack Roush, John Henry
2008 Crew Chief: Jimmy Fennig
2008 Stats: 36 starts, 0 wins, 6 top fives, 14 top 10s, 0 poles, 13th in points
High Point: Restrictor-plate races have been a consistent strength for David Ragan in his career, and a third-place finish in the Talladega Chase race solidified that notion. Ragan ran with the leaders for most of the day and was bumped up to a third-place finish after NASCAR ruled that rookie Regan Smith dipped below the yellow line. Backing up a fifth place at Daytona three months earlier, Ragan proved once again that he can run well in a plate race, and has gained the trust of savvy plate veterans like Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the draft.
The high point of Ragan’s season was not just the Talladega race alone, however – it was also the stretch of races it fell into. Beginning with the third Chase race in Kansas, Ragan reeled off a string of seven consecutive top 15s, with five of those finishes 10th or better. If Ragan had made the Chase, he would have been in contention for the Sprint Cup title; instead, he used the majority of the playoffs to clinch 13th in the driver standings with ease.
Low Point: Making the Chase is what every Sprint Cup driver sets as his goal when the season begins. But after a disappointing rookie year, Ragan and the No. 6 team likely had a more realistic goal on their minds – scoring more than just three top 10s and improving slightly upon their 24.5-average finish from 2007, both statistics that left them well outside playoff contention. Instead, Roush Fenway’s original team managed to exceed the expectations of many, fighting for a Chase spot until the deciding race at Richmond in September.
Early in that event, Ragan’s playoff hopes were almost snuffed out, as he lost control during a restart and collected teammate Matt Kenseth in the wreck – causing both drivers to sustain major damage to their cars. The sophomore’s chances then appeared to be ruined; but Ragan managed to battle back and stay in contention through the midpoint of the race. In fact, he was in a direct battle with Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne to land the coveted 12th spot in the points for much of the event.
As the race wound down, though, the damage from that crash caused Ragan to slip back, while Bowyer maintained a running position just high enough to stay 12th in the points. By the finish, Ragan had faded to 32nd, and wound up out of the Chase and stuck at 13th in the points. He followed that disappointment with a 28th-place run in the next race at New Hampshire, then scored an 18th at Dover in Chase race two, wrapping up one of the team’s worst three-race stretches of 2008.
Summary: Ragan’s second year on the Sprint Cup tour began like most of his rookie year races ended, with a big wreck. During the season-opening Daytona 500, Ragan lost control of his No. 6 Ford, swept up teammate Kenseth and sent both careening into the wall. Ragan ended up 42nd and then had to endure post-race criticism from Kenseth himself that lasted long after the checkered flag.
However, as the year progressed, many started to notice Ragan’s team turn it around. He finished 14th at Fontana and seventh the next week in Las Vegas. As the year wore on, solid finishes in the top 15 became the norm, including an 11th at Martinsville and a 13th at Texas that allowed the team to gain a bit of momentum. A bad Phoenix run in April was followed by Ragan’s first top five of the season, a fourth at Talladega that set the team up for a consistent spring and summer of strong performances.
As the season wore on, many mid-level teams sunk into the late teens and early 20s in the points. But Ragan was the exception, nearly pulling off a huge upset and scoring a playoff spot from one of the Chase veterans down the stretch. Even after barely missing out on the top 12, he and his team got it together and easily finished a “best of the rest” 13th in the points.
If there is a type of track that is Ragan’s Achilles’ heel, it may be the road courses. Ragan’s finish of 24th at Infineon was considered a top 10 for the driver and the team, while his 30th-place run in Watkins Glen was one of the nails in the coffin for the No. 6’s Chase hopes. If Ragan wants to contend in 2009, he needs to improve upon those finishes at those two tracks.
Despite any weaknesses, though, Ragan’s maturation as a driver was one of the better stories of 2008 and has done wonders for his career. Not only did Ragan gain the respect and admiration of other drivers, fans and the media alike, but it helped him gain sponsorship for next season in a sagging economy. He improved his points position from 23rd to 13th in 2008, scored 11 more top 10s and four more top fives than he did in his rookie season, and improved his average finishing position by almost 10 spots over his 2007 average.
Ragan has come a long way from being a “dart without feathers,” as Tony Stewart called him after his second career race in 2006.
Off-Track News: When AAA announced it was leaving Ragan’s team early in 2008, some thought that if another sponsor did not sign, his team would be the one to disappear from the Roush stable, since Roush Fenway has to downsize from five teams to four after 2009. Instead, the team stepped up its performance enough to score an A-grade sponsorship from UPS, who decided to leave Michael Waltrip Racing after two disappointing years.
This not only guarantees funding for the team, but also means increased exposure for Ragan, as UPS spends lots of money activating its NASCAR sponsorship. Remember the “Drive the Truck, Dale” commercials? Ragan had been fairly obscure amongst the Cup ranks this season until his team crept into Chase contention. Not anymore… expect to see more Ragan commercials with not just UPS, but also with Coca-Cola as he joins the Coke Family of Drivers this season.
2009 Outlook: Expect big things from the No. 6 team next season now that Georgia driver Ragan and Georgia company UPS have come together. Not only will he have a world-class sponsor on the hood of his car, but the car itself is world-class equipment. With an additional year of experience under his belt, Ragan also knows better than ever how to take good equipment and score good finishes without wrecking.
As limitless as this youngster’s future may be, though, fans should not expect him to run off with his first Sprint Cup title in 2009. Improving one’s point position from 23rd to 13th is much easier than gaining another 10 positions to third. The competition at the top of the points chart is like no other in sports these days. Case in point: even drivers Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Kenseth went winless in ’08, never seriously threatening for the title despite making the Chase.
Ragan may be able to break that playoff threshold in ’09 – but getting near the top five in points is highly unlikely. How can they keep moving up? The No. 6 bunch should concentrate on turning 13th-place finishes into eighth-places, while working on trying to score more bonus points by leading laps at tracks besides Daytona and Talladega.
Quote of the Year: “Driving for Roush Fenway Racing is already a big dream come true; but on top of that, to now represent a leading international corporation such as UPS on the racetrack is really special. UPS is a company that is so incredibly popular and respected not just here, but all over the world. Everywhere you go, people love UPS, and it will be fantastic to wear that famous shield logo.” – Ragan on sponsor UPS joining his team in 2009.
2006 Frontstretch Grade: N/A
2007 Grade: D+
2008 Grade: B+
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