If the Sprint Cup Series went by practice speeds, David Ragan would be one of the best on the circuit.
Throughout much of the early 2011 season, Ragan and his Drew Blickensderfer-led team have shown up to the track with fast cars and proved it in practice and qualifying. Yet when the checkered flag falls on Sunday, the No. 6 UPS Ford is typically far off from their Friday and Saturday showings.
Looking at the speed charts from Thursday’s opening practice session at the Texas Motor Speedway is further proof this team is continuing to show speed and strong potential. When the session was over, Ragan was once again atop the charts – something that is starting to become a trend. Last week in Martinsville Ragan led final practice, doing the same two weeks ago in Fontana. He was a top 10 car in two of the practices in Bristol and was second-fastest in final practice at Phoenix. In addition to being fast in practice, Ragan also has three qualifying runs of 11th or better.
For all the speed shown in practice and qualifying, it seems this team has struggled to put the complete package together and record solid finishes on race day.
Perhaps the best chance for the young driver to score his first career win was the season-opening Daytona 500. Working with fellow Ford driver Trevor Bayne in the closing laps, it appeared Bayne was content pushing Ragan to the win. However, when Ragan changed lanes prior to the start-finish line he was black flagged by NASCAR and his chances at Daytona 500 glory vanished.
Since that mistake, Ragan has shown time and again he has a fast race car, but much like the end of the Daytona 500, he has yet to capitalize. After finishing 14th in the Daytona 500, Ragan finished 36th in Phoenix, 22nd in Las Vegas, 16th in Bristol and 22nd in Fontana.
Last week in Martinsville, Ragan was again fast in practice, qualified 14th, but was finally able to put together a solid finish. Coming home eighth, Ragan was hoping for a better result.
“I felt like we had a top 10 car going into the race,” he said. “If we could have caught a couple of lucky breaks, we might have had a shot to finish in the top three or four. We got hung out there on one of the green flag pit stops and got caught a lap down. We were fortunate to make it back and pass a lot of cars to end up in the top 10. It was certainly a good run. I thought there with about 100 [laps] to go I was like, ‘Man, we’ve run good all day and we’re gonna finish 20th,’ but the UPS Ford was very fast. Drew made some really good pit calls toward the end when things were cycling through the green flag stops to be on the good side of things. It was a good day and our car was a top 10 car, so it was good to finish there.”
This team needs to keep putting together weekends like they had in Martinsville. Now in his fifth full season in the Sprint Cup Series with Roush Fenway Racing, Ragan has yet to live up to expectations. After having his best season in 2008, in which he scored six top 5s, 14 top 10s and finished 13th in points, Ragan has struggled. In 2009, he had only two top 10s and finished 27th in points. Last season Ragan recorded three top 10s and ended the year 24th in points.
Now with Blickensderfer calling the shots, the team has the added pressure of being in a contract year with sponsor UPS. The performances have been there throughout the weekend, but the work continues to finish strong on race day.
“We just got to be more perfect in our jobs,” Ragan said. “It seems like we get here we make adjustments during practice day, during happy hour – in qualifying we’ve been fast. It’s just the small things, mishaps on pit road, I make mistakes, on restarts we lose track position. It’s a lot of those small things. Drew and I still have to get better adjusting on the race car from Saturday to Sunday and from Lap 1 to the end of the race. That’s what separates the winners from a top-15, top-20 car. We know the fight that is in front of us and we’re just glad we’ve got some pretty good cars here.”
Both looking to show they can get the job done, Ragan and Blickensderfer continue to work on the small things to put together the complete package and finish out each weekend as strong as possible.
“I think a lot of it as a team we’ve got to get a little better,” Blickensderfer said. “As a team we’re a top-5 team on Friday, I’d call us a tenth-place team on Saturday and a 15th-place team on Sunday. I think that just comes as the pit crew, myself and David all building confidence in each other. It’s so hard to run in the top 10 in this series, and the difference between 17th and 10th usually it’s not the driver, the crew or the calls; it’s just luck of the draw and everything falling your way. We’ve had a little bit of bad luck this year, had a couple things go wrong in the races that were unfortunate and we’ve had some races where we didn’t perform to what we thought the car was on Saturdays.
“As a whole, I think we’re just building everyday at the race track and at the shop to be a top 10 contender,” he added. “I think it’s David having confidence in the race cars being as fast as they are. For the last couple years, Roush Fenway hasn’t been great qualifiers. We haven’t had fast race cars when we showed up. We’ve had to make special things happen during the race to be up front and now we have fast race cars. It’s just kind of realizing we don’t have to do anything extraordinary, we’ve just got to go out there and do our jobs, get the thing on and off pit road and David having that confidence and it will build and come around.”
The work continues and will have to continue if this team wants to break this trend of running well in practice and not backing it up during the race. With both driver and crew chief on the same page, knowing full well they have their work cut out for them, progress might not be too far off.
“We’re all working very hard and the racing here, you’ve got guys who are perfect through the whole weekend, that don’t make mistakes, the pit crews are good, their engines are good,” Ragan said. “In order to win and run in the top 5 in these Sprint Cup races, you’ve got to have perfect races. We’ve got a lot of the parts of the puzzle figured out, we just got to get better at doing our jobs on Sundays.”