OCEAN CITY, Md. – Blog by Race Chaser Online Mid-Atlantic Correspondent Marshall Gabell – Sarah Glenn/Getty Images North America photo –
With the bombshell dropping that Unadilla, Georgia native David Ragan would be piloting Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 for the injured Kyle Busch, multiple questions shot across social media – the biggest concerning Ragan’s chances to make the Chase Grid.
Assuming that Ragan remains inside the top 30 in the points standings, he will become eligible to make the Chase if he is able to climb into Victory Lane before the title battle begins after Richmond (in September).
Ragan wouldn’t be a new face to the winners circle either. After getting a huge push from Front Row Motorsports (his usual team in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series) teammate David Gilliland at Talladega in 2013, he scored his second career win – his first victory came back in 2011 at Daytona International Speedway when he drove for Roush Fenway Racing.
Just from his limited exposure to winning at the top level, it is evident that Ragan is a specialist at restrictor plate tracks, something that could get him into the Chase Grid with a triumph at Talladega or Daytona later this season.
But restrictor plate tracks are the “crap shoots” in NASCAR and the 29-year-old cannot bank on a win at those tracks given the craziness and uncertainty.
With that being said, since the Joe Gibbs Racing release did not include the number of races that Ragan will pilot the M&Ms Crispy Toyota, I have compiled a list of tracks (with statistics) that make a case for why Ragan could clinch a spot on the Chase Grid and be the underdog come September when the battle for the championship begins.
1. Atlanta Motor Speedway
It seems amusing, right? But with the equipment behind him and the talent, Ragan could be a victor in his first race with the Joe Gibbs organization.
Despite leading just one lap there, Ragan has had a consistent track record at Atlanta, failing to finish just once due to an engine failure.
In the 12 races he has run at the fast and challenging mile-and-a-half circuit, Ragan scored a best finish of eighth back in 2008 with Roush Fenway.
Driving for the underfunded Front Row organization the past three seasons, Ragan has not finished worse than 28th (in 2012).
These are not exactly Jimmie Johnson’s statistics, but again, with the right equipment and the experience under his belt, the possibilities could be endless for Ragan.
2. Auto Club Speedway
The No. 18 Toyota is already familiar to Victory Lane at this track.
Last season, Busch drove it to the winners circle at Auto Club, and Ragan could give Joe Gibbs back-to-back wins at the southern California track this time around.
Just like Atlanta, Ragan has made few errors at this difficult track, crashing out just once — during his final season with Roush in 2010.
He has led a mere three laps here, but in his 12 starts he captured a track-best seventh in 2009 after starting in the 37th position.
I will reiterate it again, with the equipment that Gibbs supplies, this could become the next track we see Ragan smiling at in Victory Lane.
3. Martinsville Speedway
We do not know how long Busch will be sidelined, but imagining that he does not return for the March 29th race at Martinsville Speedway, then Ragan will be back in the No. 18 machine and could be a dangerous threat.
After 17 races at the shortest track on the Sprint Cup Series schedule, Ragan has racked up two top-10 finishes, one coming last season with Front Row – one of his strongest races during the 2014 campaign.
With the success that Ragan’s teammates have had at Martinsville, I would never overlook a Joe Gibbs car winning at the Paperclip. And with that being said, I think that Martinsville will be the strongest shot for Ragan to triumph at while behind the Gibbs machine.
Aside from just his substitute role in the No. 18 car, Ragan will also be in contention at Talladega – whether it is with Front Row or Joe Gibbs – and other tracks before the Chase reaches.
Some might consider it a long shot, but I think once the checkered flag flies at Richmond it may just be Ragan crashing the regulars’ party and earning his first-career appearance on the Chase Grid.
The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Race Chaser Online, Speed77 Radio, the Performance Motorsports Network, their sponsors or other contributors.