- Ryan McGee, ESPN Senior Writer
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David Ragan hears them all the time. Those questions that drip with sympathy. When well-meaning fans approach him, their lower lips pulled up tight and heads softly shaking in a warm, friendly sort of manner. Like you see and hear at funerals.
Hi David are you OK? Are you hanging in there?
"I always tell them, 'Aw, thank y'all for your concern, but I'm good,'" said the 26-year-old racer. "I'm healthy. I've got a good family. I'm getting married in December. I'm having a good time and I'm still getting to race."
So, are they satisfied with that response?
"No," he replied, laughing. "Not really."
Neither is he. And that unsatisfied feeling -- not to mention the questions -- will only become worse this week. Why? Because Ragan is defending the only win of his still-young Sprint Cup career. One year ago, driving for NASCAR superpower Roush Fenway Racing, he held off then-teammate Matt Kenseth to win the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona.
He did so while his ride, the No. 6 Ford team made famous by Mark Martin, was awash in rumors it was going to be shuttered. At season's end, those fears became reality as sponsor UPS announced it was scaling back its NASCAR efforts.
After five years in stock car racing's upper echelon, Ragan was out of a ride.
Now he makes a living at the other end of the garage, piloting the cash-strapped, unsponsored No. 34 Ford of Front Row Motorsports. Ragan has started all 16 races this season -- leading eight laps and posting one top-10 finish -- has an average finish of 27th and is ranked 29th in points.
"The elephant in the room whenever I have conversations with anyone, fans or media or whoever, is that we're not as competitive as we want to be," he said. "I'm not in the same equipment as I was one year ago.
"Are we a championship contender? Not a chance. But does that mean we're working any less hard at this than the guys at the top end of the sport? Not a chance."
Front Row team owner Bob Jenkins fielded his first Cup car in 2005. In just more than 320 starts he has used 26 different drivers. Once an admitted start-and-park operation, the team is showing signs of actually building something, despite little-to-no sponsorship (the fast food operations that adorn the hoods are from restaurant chains of which Jenkins is a franchisee).
Josh Wise has posted 14 DNFs in 15 starts. But Ragan and teammate David Gilliland have failed to finish only three races in their combined 34 starts. Ragan's two contributions to that statistic are legit, a crash in the Daytona 500 and a blown engine at Charlotte.
"We find small victories to keep us motivated," Ragan admitted. "A good qualifying effort or racing inside the top 20 most of the day, that's a good weekend for us. The little things."
Ragan feels like he's been able to bring his own little things from Roush to Front Row, particularly the good relationships with Ford's racing engineers and corporate brass that he developed during his time with the Blue Oval's flagship team.
But he believes that his most valuable contribution has been the same part of his racing DNA that so many seem so worried that he would have lost during his Silly Season demotion.
"I think I bring some confidence to the table," he said. "I've been to the mountaintop of the sport, so to speak. I view this garage as different levels, different groups of teams, and I feel like I have some unique perspective on that. Everyone knows we can't compete with Hendrick, Roush, Gibbs, Childress, and this year Michael Waltrip Racing, week-to-week. But we're not too far from that next group down."
Those groups can easily identify what tier they are on because they end up racing around the same cars nearly every weekend. Ragan sees Front Row racing at the tail end of the group that includes Furniture Row and JTG Daugherty, and not too far removed from the likes of Richard Petty Motorsports and Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing.
It's not as far off as you might think. We have cars and equipment now that can go 500 or 600 miles. This team didn't have that just a few years ago. We have good people. We have good data. We have good ideas. But our budget is half what those other teams have. You throw that in there and we're doing all right.
”-- David Ragan
"It's not as far off as you might think," he said. "We have cars and equipment now that can go 500 or 600 miles. This team didn't have that just a few years ago. We have good people. We have good data. We have good ideas. But our budget is half what those other teams have. You throw that in there and we're doing all right."
He admits that his career has played out "totally backwards," starting with Roush Fenway at the age of 20 and now driving for a grassroots team.
But as much as he is actively looking to move back up the food chain, there is also something oddly comfortable about where he is. His father, Ken Ragan, raced out of a family shop in Unadilla, Ga., making 50 Cup series starts from 1983 to 1990, with no top-10 finishes and an even split of 25-25 DNFs versus running at the finish. David's grandfather also raced as a driver and owner, even making some lower-division starts on the sands of Daytona Beach.
"It's a hard way to make a living, but it's fun too," the youngest Ragan said while his crew scrambled around him preparing for practice. "These guys work hard. There's something to be said about guys working just because they love it so much, especially when they know in their heart that more than likely we aren't going to win on Sunday.
"When the day comes that they finally do win, it'll be that much more special."
Those comments were made at Dover one month ago. Sure enough, Ragan didn't win. But he did lead three laps and finished 21st, seven positions ahead of where he started.
This weekend at Daytona the feeling heading into the green flag will be much different. Restrictor-plate racing is the great NASCAR equalizer and no one knows that better than Front Row. All three of the team's all-time top-10 finishes have come at plate tracks over the past year and a half. At Talladega in April they put two cars in the top 13.
Ragan finished a season-best seventh.
"In our hearts it would not be a big surprise or a big upset if we pulled off a victory at Daytona," said the man who has posted a career-best three top-5s and four top-10s at the World Center of Racing. "I don't just think it's possible. I know it's possible."
Then he smiled, and added with a wink, "Then I'd sure have another answer to give all those folks asking how I'm doing, wouldn't I?"