*2011 Ride:* No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford
*2011 Sponsors:* UPS (36 races), Ned Jarrett / NASCAR Hall of Fame (1 race)
*2011 Owners:* Jack Roush and John Henry
*2011 Crew Chief:* Drew Blickensderfer
*Stats:* 36 Races, 1 Win, 4 Top 5s, 8 Top 10s, 5 DNFs, 2 Poles, 23rd in Points.
*Best Finish:* 1st – Coke Zero 400, Daytona.
*Average Finish:* 19.2.
*2011 Team Ranking:* Fourth out of the four Roush Fenway cars. If you include the two Richard Petty Motorsports cars (Roush Fenway satellite teams), Ragan was sixth out of six in the standings.
*High Point:* Ragan scored his first career Sprint Cup Series victory in July’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway in his 163rd start. Always a strong suit in plate races, Ragan survived two restarts in the final eight laps of the race to finally close the deal and, at that time, and put the No. 6 in Chase “wild card” contention. To add to the UPS Ford’s good mojo, Ragan followed that run up with an 8th place at Kentucky Speedway to get momentum rolling.
*Low Point:* Unfortunately, also at Daytona and on a late-race restart in February’s Daytona 500. Ragan led the field on lap 197 of 200 and switched lanes before the start-finish line to line up with his drafting partner, Trevor Bayne, which is a clear NASCAR no no. Ragan got the black flag for the violation and finished 14th. Bayne, meanwhile, staved off the field and won the Great American Race. The foible by Ragan seemed to symbolize a year and a career of shortcomings in crunch time for the 25-year-old Unadilla, Georgia driver.
*Summary:* After a disappointing start to 2011 (the Daytona penalty and a crash at Phoenix), Ragan and the No. 6 team rose to their normal midpack level of finishes before scoring top 10s at Martinsville and Texas (where Ragan won the pole). But inconsistency riddled Ragan through the year, as the No. 6 rarely backed up any of its eight top-10 finishes with comparable runs. Ragan did finish 4th in both the May and September Richmond race and runner-up in the fuel mileage-decided Coca-Cola 600. At the season’s midpoint, Ragan broke through and won the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, finally removing the “non-winner” yoke from his neck. But a rough summer stretch through almost all of August and part of September saw the No. 6 team score only one top 15 between the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Advocare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Those runs doomed the No. 6 team’s chances of using its victory to transfer into the Chase via a wild card spot. In the closing laps of the Wonderful Pistachios 400 at Richmond, the last race before the Chase, Ragan had a chance to stay out on old tires and try to hold off the field on the final restart, scoring a second victory that would get him into the Chase. Instead, crew chief Drew Blickensderfer failed to employ Tony Stewart’s “Nothing to Lose” strategy, pitted the No. 6, and Ragan finished fourth. Ragan opened the Chase with solid runs at Chicagoland and Loudon, but struggled through the final eight races, scoring only two top-15 performances.
Ragan’s season, despite the win, was characterized by his big restart mistake in the Daytona 500 and his failure to score the finishes matching veteran teammates Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, and Greg Biffle. While the RFR cars were often the class of the field, fixing their shortcomings in engineering Ragan could only squeak out an “average” Cup season. Ragan also failed to outduel his fellow competitors during restarts, as his laid back lack of aggression did not gel well with the growing alarm and aggression many drivers began showing. When he did get aggressive, Ragan sometimes would make the wrong move and cost himself or someone else a good finish. Off his game down the stretch, Ragan ended both the season and likely his tenure at Roush Fenway Racing with an engine failure in the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, as the team ran an experimental motor in the No. 6.
*Off-Track News/2012 Outlook:* As early as the middle of 2010, UPS appeared to have become disinterested with having Ragan as its driver for years to come. With its contract up with Roush Fenway Racing and Ragan at the end of the 2011 season, many already assumed the worst for the relationship between sponsor and team. Ragan always remained optimistic about UPS’ future, as most drivers often do, but the Georgia company’s plans surfaced during the Labor Day weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, leaving Ragan to answer more questions about funding than about racing in front of his hometown crowd. UPS will serve as an associate sponsor on Carl Edwards’ No. 99 next season and be the primary sponsor for a few races – but no longer will they grace the hood of a car full-time.
With no funding in place for Ragan’s No. 6, the first marquee team for Roush Fenway Racing, and no sponsor in place for Matt Kenseth’s No. 17, owner Jack Roush said he could not commit to keeping the No. 6 together. Even though Ragan is under contract, he has been told he can explore other opportunities and has said he would rather run competitively in a lower NASCAR series than a backmarker Sprint Cup team. Joining Brian Vickers and David Reutimann among the big name drivers out of a ride for 2012, Ragan’s Sprint Cup future may be dimmer for now, with one lone exception: Penske Racing. Asking for his release from Roush Fenway at the end of November, Ragan has interviewed for the No. 22 Dodge opened up by Kurt Busch’s departure and is a top candidate at press time to snag the ride. If not, James Finch and the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet is a backup possibility.
Ford hasn’t completely given up on Ragan, either. There could be Blue Oval rides in play at the teams of FAS Lane Racing, TRG Motorsports, and Front Row Motorsports, which would keep the dealership-owning Ragan in a Ford, but those teams do run routinely outside the top 25. Ragan could split a part-time ride in the No. 6 with Roush Fenway Nationwide Series champ Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. or Trevor Bayne (depending on who Roush decides to put into the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Ford). RFR also plans to keep one or two NNS teams intact next season, which could mean a part-time or full-time seat for Ragan. But with Roush now having a higher interest in grooming the new talent in Bayne and Stenhouse Jr., Ragan may go the route of former Roush up-and-comer Erik Darnell, who lost steam on his NASCAR rise with the advent of Ragan in 2006. In the NNS, Rick Ware Racing fields Fords and could convert one of its start-and-park rides into a home for Ragan and MacDonald Motorsports has an opening in the No. 81, after Blake Koch decided to take his talents to a team yet-to-be-announced. There are no funded Ford teams in the Camping World Truck Series.
Roush did make comments immediately after the season’s last race, calling the situation with Ragan a “disappointment,” because he could not find funding for the No. 6 car and Ragan did not perform well enough to keep UPS on board. Roush Fenway Racing has reportedly laid off a number of employees in anticipation of having to eliminate at least two teams and No. 6 crew chief Drew Blickensderfer has already bolted for the No. 31 pit box with Richard Childress Racing. Something may materialize for Ragan at Roush Fenway in 2012, but if it does, his situation will be much different that it has been the past few.
*2011 Frontstretch.com Grade:* C+.
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