Strong run in Texas a confidence-builder for Ragan
A solid performance in the Busch Series race at Texas wasn't the cure-all for struggling rookie David Ragan, but it's something he can build on, writes Mark Ashenfelter.
Some day, David Ragan might look back at Texas Motor Speedway as the track where it all started to come together. Sure he'll have to put memories of the Nextel Cup Series race behind him to do so, but his performance in the Busch Series race was anything but forgettable.
Winning the pole for the O'Reilly 300 was one thing, as numerous drivers have shown they can hold onto a fast car for a lap or two. Ragan, who said after qualifying that he wanted to put a solid race together and in a field filled with Cup regulars, did just that.
The fifth-place run was the best finish of a Busch career that's spanned just 15 races heading into Friday night's Bashas' Supermarkets 200 at Phoenix International Raceway. A wreck to start Sunday's Cup race likely dampened his weekend, but he does have momentum on the Busch side as he pulls double duty as a rookie in both series.
"This is probably our best run as a team. You always want to run a little better than you did but what a great rebound from [finishing 36th after crashing at Nashville]," Ragan said after the race. "& It was a fun race. [Winner and Roush Fenway Racing teammate] Matt Kenseth is an unbelievable driver. He showed us what it's all about today."
Ragan, though, gave an indication of what he's about, too. While he enjoyed a few runs of this nature in the Craftsman Truck Series, doing it at the next level shows why Jack Roush felt comfortable in turning the No. 6 Cup car over to Ragan this season. Sure there are still skeptics, but only time will convert them.
"It's a solid run and we'll build on this and we definitely want to win some," Ragan says. "We won't always be satisfied with fifth but [this time] we will be. For a Raybestos Rookie team we had a real strong run. We're very happy just to pick up some points [following Nashville]. A top-five in any top division in NASCAR is an awesome run."
It also was the first career top-five in the series for crew chief Mike Kelley, who worried coming in that Ragan's blistering qualifying run might have left him at a disadvantage to start the race. With the cars impounded following qualifying, there's always a chance a setup -- if too aggressive for qualifying -- will lead to handling issues once the race begins.
And, in fact, Ragan's Ford Fusion was too tight until the first pit stop, when Kelley called for air-pressure adjustments. After that, the driver worked his way back toward the front.
"I was really glad to see that he got to start behind all those guys and show 'em David Ragan can run with these guys on a week-in and week-out basis," Kelley said. "The team's got to get better, the cars will get better and David will get some experience and that's what we need to do on days like today."
There's one thing Ragan knows he can't do at this stage of the game, and that's consider himself someone capable of filling Mark Martin's shoes in the Cup car right out of the gate. Truth be told, few drivers in the sport today can consider themselves Martin's equal, let alone a rookie with just two Cup starts entering the season.
"A lot of people ask me how hard is it to replace Mark Martin and I always tell 'em Mark Martin is the kind of guy that you can't replace so I don't have to worry about that," Ragan says. "No one expects me to go out and replace Mark Martin. Certainly you can ask Regan Smith [who shares the No. 01 Cup car with Martin at Ginn Racing] that. He's not going out trying to replace him on the weekends.
"Mark is that incredible of a race-car driver. It's my position to just go out and keep [sponsor] AAA happy and [crew chief] Jimmy Fennig [happy]. We've been working closely together on what kind of common goals we have for the year and Jack Roush obviously has a big input on what's going on.
"I really haven't tried to pay attention to replacing Mark or stepping into the famous No. 6 ride. I more or less try to go out and try to stick to our guns and do what we know is right and everything else will take care of itself."
For one Busch Series race at Texas, at least, everything went according to plan.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.