David Ragan began his Sprint Cup career with one of the powerhouse teams, spending the past five seasons at Roush Fenway Racing. He was forced to look for employment elsewhere for 2012 when the organization was beset by sponsor withdrawals, including UPS from Ragan's No. 6, and decided to cut back from four to three full-time cars.
Ragan landed at Front Row Motorsports, a gritty organization whose only resemblance to Roush Fenway is that they both run Fords. There, Ragan had to undergo a change in expectations and a change in attitude. At Roush Fenway, he was trying to build his career. At Front Row, he's trying to help build the team.
Ragan made his first landmark contribution to Front Row at Talladega, where he finished seventh. It would have garnered a "good job" from Jack Roush a year ago, but a top-10 is something to celebrate at Front Row. It's the third in the team's history and they've all come in the past season and a half. Teammate David Gilliland had the initial two in 2011, including third in the Daytona 500.
"It's a great thing to get one step closer to being a more competitive team week in and week out," Ragan said. "It shows the kind of team we're becoming. We've only been around the sport for four or five years and we're going up against teams like Roush Fenway and Hendrick and Childress that have been around since the '80s.
"It's [Talladega] a great story for our team owner, Bob Jenkins, the success we're having with a two-car team."
Gilliland finished 13th at Talladega, the team's second-best finish this season.
Jenkins started the team in 2005, but it was a part-time entry in Cup with multiple drivers through 2008. Front Row began racing the full season in 2009 with John Andretti and expanded to two cars in 2010. Jenkins is a very successful owner of fast food restaurants and he's funded the vast majority of the races with self-sponsorship.
The team has seen some additional one-race deals increase this season, a sign the team is gaining strength and credibility. Ragan's Ford will carry "Peanut Patch" backing from McCall Farms in Saturday's race at Darlington.
"He's [Jenkins] done this without a lot of primary sponsorship and backing," Ragan said. "We have a solid program with me and David and veteran crew chiefs. You don't build a program overnight and it takes longer without financial backing. We've been announcing some extra sponsorships and that's brought extra motivation to the entire team."
Ragan signed a multi-year contract with Front Row. He's in it for the long haul.
"One of my goals coming from a larger team was trying to help these guys get to a higher level and it's been a great success story," Ragan said. "A year ago, the team was just happy to be locked in the top 35 in owner points and our goal this year is to be in the top 25 with both cars and we think we have a great shot.
"Coming from a larger team, you have to adjust your expectations a little bit and find some simple victories throughout the year. Our goals are to run in the top 20 and top 15, and if things go the way they can, a top 10 is a great day for us."
Ragan is 29th in driver points, Gilliland 30th. Ragan has four finishes between 21st and 25th. He's close to getting where he wants to get more often.
Ragan's sole victory in Cup at Daytona last July puts Front Row into the Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte on May 19
"I had to race my way into the All-Star Race last year with a win in the Showdown and that was a big win for me," Ragan said. "This will be the first time Front Row is in the All-Star Race and ... [i]t gives us an extra race for our sponsors."
Ragan has taken what many perceive is a step backward from Roush Fenway to Front Row in stride.
"Everything happens for a reason and I was certainly disappointed we lost UPS and I had to go to a smaller team," Ragan said. "But you get to be a lot more personable with a smaller team, get to know the employees better and I spend more time with them. Those relationships put more desire and motivation into you.
"Just being 26 years old, I'll have another chance to be with a top-tier team and an opportunity to win races. It may be with Front Row. To get to the next level with Front Row would be an amazing accomplishment. I've got the drive and motivation to win races and I hope it's here."