In many ways, the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup season was a microcosm of David Ragan’s entire career. It was a year filled with great opportunities, even flashes of brilliance, but ultimately ended with disappointment and uncertainty.
To be sure, the now 30-year-old Ragan has always been a tough cookie to crack in NASCAR. He has become infamous over the course of his career due to seemingly random glimpses of potential that are almost inevitably followed by head-scratching incompetence. For instance, Ragan’s sophomore season in 2008 was a breakout year of sorts for the Georgia driver: he posted 14 top 10s, missed the Chase by one spot, finished 13th in points, and entered 2009 as the hottest young prospect in the sport. Many thought he was destined to be its next young star, sitting right up there along with then-rookie Joey Logano.
It never happened.
Since then, Ragan has been occasionally brilliant on “drivers’ tracks,” posting two superspeedway wins and multiple strong runs at short tracks. However, since ’08 he has inexplicably been unable to put a full season together in spite of piloting generally great equipment for much of that time.
2015 thus unfortunately ended up being a case of same old, same old for Ragan. He began the year driving for Front Row Motorsports in what was likely going to be a part-time effort. However, prior to race two of this season at Atlanta, Ragan was scooped up by Joe Gibbs Racing to pilot the No. 18 Toyota in a substitute role for the injured Kyle Busch. Ragan started off slow, but by the end of his JGR stint he was posting strong runs, the highlight being a fifth-place performance at Martinsville. Despite having top-five speed almost every week in the last half of his JGR run, poor luck and bad mistakes largely robbed Ragan of better results; after nine races in JGR equipment, Ragan was left with only one top-five finish.
Hoping to capitalize on the potential Ragan demonstrated in the No. 18 JGR’s Toyota stablemate Michael Waltrip Racing picked up Ragan as the full-time driver of their No. 55 car after Busch returned. Once again, Ragan started off slow but by midseason was consistently running in and around the top 10 on a weekly basis. However, the bad luck and inability to finish races that has plagued Ragan’s entire career bit him once again. Despite having an average running position that was within the top 10 over the summer stretch before the Chase, Ragan somehow still was unable to manage a single top-15 finish in the summer, save for one 12th-place result at Daytona.
Perhaps the most maddening instance of this slump came in the summer race at Bristol. Ragan, for the fourth time in as many weeks, had a car capable of running in the top five, and did so for most of the race. So good was Ragan on this night, he even flirted with the lead around the three-quarter mark of the race. Twitter and other social media platforms began lighting up with anticipation of Ragan’s shot at stealing a Chase berth at what is arguably the most difficult track on the circuit. But alas, in what has become a hallmark of Ragan’s career, he was swept up in an unusual wreck with Jimmie Johnson, becoming an innocent victim and thus killing any hope Ragan had at turning his miserable season around.
After the Bristol letdown, Ragan and the No. 55 team seemed to lose steam; they never seriously contended for top 10s after that night. Most of this downturn can be attributed to MWR’s announcement in midsummer that the team would be closing up shop at the end of 2015, effectively making Ragan a free agent for what may as well have been the 100th time in the young driver’s career. Looming unemployment seemed to knock the fight out of the No. 55 squad; they finished off the season with no finishes better than 15th.
Now, with MWR officially closed, Ragan is in the unemployment line once again. Many assumed Ragan would grab Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 9 car, but Brian Scott ended up in that seat. It would appear that Ragan’s best chance for a competitive ride lied in either the Xfinity or Truck Series at this point, something that I am sure does not sit well with the still-young Georgian driver.
2016 will thus be a watershed year for Ragan in NASCAR. If he can find a ride in one of the top three NASCAR touring series, he will have one more opportunity to prove he belongs in this business. But no matter where he lands (and he’ll land somewhere, rest assured Ragan Nation) he’ll need to perform, and he’ll need to do so quickly. For one more season like 2015 could end up crushing whatever future David Ragan has in this sport.