Being around NASCAR for more than a decade, David Ragan has seen the highs and lows of the sport. However, 2018 is a swing in the right direction for his No. 38 team.
Through the opening 28 races of the season, Ragan has a best finish of sixth at Talladega Superspeedway, his lone top-10 finish of the season. Meanwhile, he sits 25th in the driver’s standings, five positions above where he finished 2017, his return season to Front Row Motorsports.
The No. 38 team already has nine top-20 finishes, more than its entire total in 2017 (eight). Ragan’s average starting position is up nearly six positions, while his averaging finishing position is up a pair of spots, some due in part to having an “elevated partnership” with Ford Performance.
At Richmond Raceway, Ragan discussed the partnership with Ford, as well as where he feels Front Row Motorsports stacks in terms of other Blue Oval teams.
Dustin Albino, Fronstretch: How would you assess 2018 thus far?
David Ragan: I think we’ve had a good year. We haven’t had a great year because we’ve made a few mistakes, a few part failures and things that have cost us some spots. You’re going to have some issues like that throughout a year. If you don’t, you’ll have an exceptional year and that’s what we strive to have. I don’t want to make any mistakes on the racetrack. We don’t want to have any part failures and we don’t want to have any DNFs. We have had a few of them and that’s what makes our year just good instead of great.
Our average starting position, our average finishing position and the amount of times we’ve finished in the second round of qualifying, the top 20 — those are all better than what we had last year. It’s a great progression and it’s hard to have good progressions like that in this sport. I think that’s something we can be proud of.
Albino: What have been the biggest strengths for the No. 38 team?
Ragan: We would have loved to won a race and made the playoffs, but I think the dominance that those Big Three guys had [Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr.] and some of the separation from the large teams to the middle-class teams. We just weren’t in position to do that at a short track, superspeedway or even at a road course. I think other than not winning a race and making the playoffs, if you can improve your starting position, your finishing position, how many times you advance to the second round qualifying and things like that, it’s all you can hope for.
Albino: What has Michael McDowell brought to Front Row Motorsports to help grow the team?
Ragan: Michael [McDowell] has brought a lot of good things to the team. He’s got a lot of fire, he’s passionate about the sport and works really hard. He views things a little differently than I do. We have completely different backgrounds with him being a west coast guy and a sports car guy, and me being from the southeast and a circle, asphalt guy. We look at setups and cars a little different, which is good. It’s been a good combination and I think he’s helped elevate the team on and off the track.
Albino: You guys had a pretty good friendship before, right?
Ragan: Yeah, we have kids that are in the same grade in pre-school and same age. Our wives are friends, which is always nice to have that you can go back to. That’s a neat relationship for teammates to have.
Albino: How much of a factor is having an elevated relationship with Ford Performance in making the team better?
Ragan: Ford has invested more in Front Row Motorsports by upgrading our engine program some, strengthening our relationship with Roush Fenway Racing and our ability to build cars during the season. Bob Jenkins, our car owner, continues to invest in this sport which is outstanding. It’s all shown.
Having better engines and racecars this year, being able to build better racecars has all been part of the progress that we want to being a more competitive team.
Albino: A lot of people don’t know how that works, but obviously the team is spending more money for research, data, etc. I don’t want you to give me figures, but take people through that process.
Ragan: At the end of the day in our sport, we don’t have spending caps. There’s really no budget than from what the team is willing to spend. In racing – in all forms of motorsports – and really all forms of athletics, the more you spend the better you are. You can hire better people. You can hire more people. You can higher smarter people. You can practice more, have more technology at your fingertips and adjust to rule changes quicker. By saying all of that, you have to work smart because sometimes the guys with the biggest budgets don’t always win when you don’t work smart.
At the end of the day, I think Front Row Motorsports as well as Ford Motor Company, we spend more money in certain areas and it’s showed.
Albino: Do you feel like in present-day NASCAR you have to have manufacturer backing to be competitive?
Ragan: 100 percent. You can’t be successful without manufacturer support. Obviously, if you were Warren Buffet and you wanted to spend $100 million of your own money you could do it, but you have to have manufacture support, period.
Albino: How much of a difference can you tell when you’re in the seat compared to last year?
Ragan: You can tell a big difference absolutely from the first time you get on the throttle at a racetrack and when you’re racing other cars. You can tell a big difference.
Albino: With the improvements, where do you feel like you are compared to other Ford teams?
Ragan: The Stewart-Haas and Penske teams are the class of the Fords, today. We have an engineering agreement with Roush Fenway and Ricky [Stenhouse Jr.] has done a nice job getting good finishes out of the car. The [No.] 6 car has struggled some this year to their standards. I think our goal was to race around the Roush cars and I think we’re able to do that. We’re able to outrun them sometimes and we’re able to run within a few positions of them. Our goal is to help the Roush team as much as we can because the better the Roush team gets, the better we get.
We get engineering support and information from them, so that allows us to be smarter and build better racecars. We definitely try to do what we can to improve the performance and feedback from the Roush cars as much as we can.
Albino: In return, do you think that’s their goal as well?
Ragan: I think they realize the better we perform and the better our racecars are, the more accurate feedback they are going to get. Yeah, it’s in their best interest that we have good speed and progress, too.
Albino: Do you think that will increase even more for 2019?
Ragan: I think we’ll always be trying to align ourselves more in-tune. From an engineering, data sharing, I think we see as much as is available. The only way that we can get closer is Front Row Motorsports continues to have good employees and more employees to update our cars more throughout the year.
What is fast at Atlanta at the beginning of the year, is not as what’s fast at the Coke 600 in May. And that’s not fast at the fall Richmond race, which isn’t fast at Homestead. Throughout the year, you always have new generations of aero specs, chassis specs, suspension parts and pieces so you’re constantly making improvements throughout the year. We need to be able to make those improvements at a little bit faster rate.
Albino: What are your goals for the rest of the year?
Ragan: We don’t need to have any more DNFs. We need to finish in the top 20 and try to improve our performance going to these tracks for the second time around. At Martinsville and Dover in the spring, we didn’t run well to our standards at those tracks. Homestead was a good race for us last year, but we need to improve there and improve at Texas and Phoenix. There’s some really good tracks coming up for us that we can perform well at and that I enjoy racing at. No DNFs and top 20s these last nine races and that’ll be a good way to finish the year.
Albino: Silly Season is in full swing. Do you know what your plans are for 2018?
Ragan: I don’t. I expect in the next month or so Bob Jenkins and Jerry Freeze will get their manufacturer agreements done and start working on some stuff. Usually, in late October or early November. I usually don’t even start thinking about it until then.
Albino: How hard is it to wait that long?
Ragan: I think when I was younger and more impatient it was. But I’ve been pretty focused and really happy here at Front Row Motorsports, so I don’t talk to other teams. They don’t talk to me, and I’m pretty happy to have what I have and the opportunity to try to get Front Row Motorsports into Victory Lane and into the playoffs. I feel pretty comfortable with my relationship with Bob.