Prior to the 2017 season kicking off in February at Daytona International Speedway, David Ragan returned to a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series organization where he had previously completed a three-year stint.
The veteran driver was coming home to Front Row Motorsports.
Ragan led FRM to its first career victory in the Cup Series in 2013 at Talladega Superspeedway. It was his second career victory as a driver, picking up his first with Roush Fenway Racing in 2011.
However, during those three years of competing in the No. 34 machine, Ragan had a total of five top-10 finishes, four of which came on the hollowed ground of Talladega. In 2014, he recorded a 10th-place finish at Martinsville Speedway, the best result for FRM at the time without restrictor plates.
Since re-joining FRM at Daytona, Ragan has a pair of top-10 efforts, both coming on plate tracks. At Talladega in May, the Georgia native rounded out the top 10, then had a chance at a victory in Daytona during the July race. On the last restart, the No. 38 car was leading, only to get passed by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. coming to the white flag. Ragan faded to sixth in the final rundown.
At Dover International Speedway, Ragan sat down with Frontstretch to discuss his return to FRM, how team owner Bob Jenkins has helped his career and what NASCAR can do to create more parity in the sport.
Dustin Albino, Frontstretch.com: This season, you sit 29th in points, but hold a pair of top 10s at two of the plate races. How would you assess 2017?
David Ragan: Our year has been ok. We have some areas that we need to clean up on. We’ve had a few lucky breaks along the way, which sometimes you create your own luck in this sport. We have had some really good days and some good cars that could have run in the top 15 and top 20, and those are our goals. We know at Front Row Motorsports that if we can qualify and race in the top 20 then that’s a good day for us.
I don’t think we’re unrealistic to the fact that we’re a smaller team with expectations to run in the middle of the pack. It’s something that we work hard on to try and improve our cars throughout the year. We try to do the best we can with what resources that we have to work with. There is always room for improvement – from the driver’s seat to the crew chief to the guys assembling our racecars. While we’re not perfectly pleased with everything, we’ve had a respectful season and we still have a lot of racing left and we have some good tracks for us coming up over the final races. We need a few more top 20s to finish the year off, and that would be good.
Albino: What have been the biggest strengths of the No. 38 team?
Ragan: Our biggest strength is the quality of our racecars. I think we have a good group of mechanics at the racetrack and the race shop that assemble our cars. We don’t have many part failures. We don’t have engine failures, driveline failures or parts fall off and break on our racecars, and that’s important. I wish we had more speed in our racecars, but often speed is a direct result with how much money you’ve put into engineering the car and wind tunnel time before going to the tracks.
We can hold our head up high and say we bring really nice racecars to the racetrack, but we can fine tune on them a little bit more and work in the grey areas. I think the teams in front of us in the points maximize those grey areas more than we do.
Albino: This is your second stint at Front Row Motorsports. What’s different this time around?
Ragan: I think our engineering agreement with Roush Fenway Racing is definitely a big factor on how Front Row Motorsports has gotten better. As Front Row has gotten better over the past three or four years, our whole industry continues to get better. It’s definitely a moving target, and what was good yesterday is not going to be good tomorrow. These teams are getting so much smarter, so much more efficient and the racecars are getting faster and faster every single week. If you’re not making improvements, you’re falling behind.
I think that Bob Jenkins [car owner] and our team have made a lot of great moves over the past three or four years to allign themselves with Roush Fenway Racing to build better racecars. We’ve kept a really good group of core crew chiefs and engineers that have been able to improve our racecars over the past few years.
Albino: How influential has owner Bob Jenkins been on your career?
Ragan: Bob’s been a big influence in my career. Obviously, going to drive for Front Row Motorsports in 2012 was kind of a turning point in my career where I left Roush Fenway Racing and was looking for a new home and found a great new friend and an individual that I can respect in a lot of different ways.
Bob is a great family man, a great Christian and a believer in hard work. He’s a people person and to see how he runs his company outside of motorsports, but then to see the sacrifices he’s made for Front Row Motorsports to grow over the past 10 years is pretty remarkable. There are a lot of other big race teams that have made a splash and they aren’t even around anymore. Bob and Front Row Motorsports has been steady and made a lot of good decisions.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to drive for Bob and get that first win for him at Talladega was really special, but also to be a part of Front Row Motorsports becoming a more established team in the series.
Albino: Is it easier to respect a team owner on the back half of the series because they are doing it for their love of racing?
Ragan: Hendrick Motorsports was a small team at one point. Team Penske when they came into the sports back in the 1980s, they were a small race team at one point. The same goes for Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing, only running a part-time schedule with Joe Nemechek back in the day. All of those teams had to start at some point, and I think people forget that Hendrick Motorsports has been around for 25 plus years. They’ve established themselves as a contender in this world that we live in today where everybody wants instant gratification and instant pleasure in anything they do. They forget that it’s very difficult to start a new business from scratch and succeed in one of the hardest forms of motorsports in the world.
Another example is Gene Haas and Haas Automation Racing. I remember when they were a two-car team with Johnny Sauter and Jeff Green and they were missing races, struggling to run in the top 25 or 30. I think Front Row was there 10 years ago, struggling to make all the races and have one car in the same ride for the entire season. To see what we’ve gone through in 10 years, and obviously I’ve been a small part of that, but we’ve got two full-time drivers, two full-time teams that have great partners and are in their third, fourth years sponsoring our race team. He [Jenkins] really started a race team at one of the toughest times to start a race team in the mid-2000s when our sport was growing fast and it was expensive to do this. He weathered the storm during the recession several years ago. There are a lot of teams that have come and gone and Front Row is still here.
Albino: You’ve spent time on both ends of the sport, competing for big teams and small teams. Do you feel like there is any parity in the sport right now?
Ragan: I can look at the parity in our sport from two different perspectives. You look at it in a perspective that Hendrick Motorsports has 500 employees. They probably have four times the budget that we do and we can still compete with them, and beat them on occasion. I think that is unbelievable. I think that is remarkable and I give all that credit to NASCAR for keeping the rules tight that would allow a smaller team with less resources, less employees to compete in the same ballpark.
On the other end, the sport is separated by fractions of a second and that is very hard to beat those guys consistently. 90 percent of the time you’re going to see the same ten drivers competing for wins and competing for championships. But I don’t think that’s nothing that our sport hasn’t been like. I think if you really took an unbiased approach and you looked at the championships in the 70s, 80s and 90s, it was the same way. A group of six to 10 drivers won 90 percent of the races and that’s very much the same in a lot of other sports. Until NASCAR is structured like stick and ball sports where the worst team gets the best draft pick and there are salary caps, I think you’re always going to have that discrepancy among the middle class and the upper class.
Albino: Would you like to see something like the salary cap?
Ragan: I have mixed emotions on the salary cap. I think in the best interest of our sport and the longevity of NASCAR being a major player in the sports world in 20 years, I think we need to look at it, absolutely. We have to create interest from wealthy individuals to come in and succeed. Right now when you look at a Bobby Ginn [Ginn Racing] and Team Red Bull and some of these wealthy programs to come in over the last 10 years and they fail miserably, it doesn’t look good. I don’t have the answer, but as a sport we do need to control the costs.
The more we spend as a race team doesn’t mean a better product on the track. I suggest spend less money where you can have more team owners interested in the sport and the product on the track will be the same thing.
Albino: But, it’s easier said than done to start a brand new organization, right?
Ragan: It’s hard, but Bob Jenkins has proved it can be done. He’s living proof that it can be done, but it hasn’t been easy. I don’t know what the answer is and our sport has been great for so many years and it still is. There are hundreds of other sports that would love to have the attendance numbers and the TV numbers that NASCAR has. I think that our sport is extremely healthy.
Albino: Obviously, Silly Season is well into play and probably coming to a close quickly. Do you know what your plans are for 2018?
Ragan: I don’t have everything in pen yet, but I expect to be back at Front Row Motorsports. Bob has been really good to me over my career. We don’t have everything finalized, but we’re working toward that.
Albino: What attracts you to this team that makes you want to take the next step with them?
Ragan: I think it’s a sense of pride for me. I’m not a 20-year-old anymore. I’m kind of a little older in terms of NASCAR age, but I’ve enjoyed working with Bob as a person and you want to have a good working relationship with your team and your car owner and I think I have that. It’s given me a sense of pride and accomplishment for me to say that I’ve helped Front Row Motorsports get their first, first this, first that. We attracted some good partners along the way, and it’s a good story. I would love to be on a team that can contend for wins every single weekend, and everybody wants that. But the job that I have is pretty fun and I do have a sense of accomplishment in Front Row Motorsports getting there.
Editor’s Note: When reached for comment, a team spokesperson said Front Row Motorsports is not speaking publicly on their 2018 plans at this time.