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Ragan, Front Row looking to build on Talladega success at Charlotte


David Ragan escaped the madness on the final lap at Talladega, hugging the outside wall at the start of the mayhem, then making a move inside to discover a path that took him to fourth at the checkered flag.

"I was happy to just get through the wreck and see life on the other side of the debris and smoke," Ragan said.

Ragan had 12 top-five finishes including a win in Sprint Cup entering this season, but this fourth-place was special, a reason to celebrate at Front Row Motorsports. It was the team's first top-five finish of the season and only the second in its history (teammate David Gilliland finished third in the Daytona 500 a year ago). Back-to-back seasons with top-fives represents progress, Front Row's main objective.

This is Ragan's first season with the organization. He began his Cup career by spending five seasons in the top-tier Roush Fenway Racing Fords. Ragan had a promising season in 2008 at age 22, marked by finishing 13th in points with six top-fives; and a not-so-promising season in 2009, when he finished 27th in points with only two top-10s. In 2011 Ragan was in the middle of those numbers -- 23rd in the standings with four top-fives and eight top-10s.

Ragan was forced out by sponsorship that was contracting at Roush-Fenway, which downsized from four to three full-time cars and struggled to find the funding to run them this season. Ragan talked to Penske Racing about replacing the departed Kurt Busch before he landed at Front Row, which was excited to have him. He's 26 with a profile of potential you can build upon and attract sponsors. Ragan also matched up well with Gilliland, 36, who has also driven Fords with engines from Roush Yates for most of his Cup career.

Ragan is 27th in points and has the team's other top-10, seventh at Talladega in the spring. Gilliland is 10 points behind in 28th and has three finishes 18th or better.

"We had realistic expectations coming into this year," Ragan said. "It's been a full-time team for four seasons and we're a smaller team and underfunded team compared to the powerhouses in our sport. We wanted to be in the top 30 in points with a couple of top fives, some top 10s and top 20s. We have been able to do that. We're damn near the top 25 and that's tough to do these days.

"It kind of gives everyone a little confidence that we have continued to get better as a team. I think it shows we are making progress and you have to start somewhere. If we keep digging, we can make it happen. Success doesn't happen overnight."

Front Row owner Bob Jenkins owns more than 100 fast-food franchise restaurants and many times in the previous three seasons, you could see them on the team's cars. Jenkins has had to self-sponsor less this season and that's a major step forward.

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"Bob Jenkins has led by example," Ragan said. "He's worked hard all his life. We've sold our potential to our sponsors. When they see a run like we had at Talladega, it gives them assurance we're in it for the long run. We're doing it the right way, smart, conservative, spending it in the right way. We're not going to be like Red Bull, who came in and spent millions and then they run home with their tail between their legs. We'll be here for a long time.

"Bob has the right ideas and has used the same management skills he used to build his business. Our next step is to sell more sponsorship and, from the team side, get into the top 25 in points."

Ragan and Gilliland will be sponsored this weekend at Charlotte by Glory Foods, which will donate $1 million to its Racing to Feed America program to combat child hunger if either driver wins.

"We've been very competitive at some tracks this year and Charlotte in the 600 was one of them," Ragan said. "We ran in the top 20, but had an engine expire at 550 miles. If we can hang onto the lead lap and have some strategy work, upsets do happen sometimes."

Ragan expects to return to Front Row next season.

"That's the plan," he said "We're trying to work on our sponsor lineup and get everything organized. We're building some new stuff. Unless Rick Hendrick would call and say the [No.] 24 car {which is driven by Jeff Gordon, who has a lifetime contract with Hendrick] is available.

"I'm not going to lie, it would be a lot of fun racing for the championship. But we've had a couple of top-10s, a top and the team has finished third. There's only two spots left to climb. If you can run in the top five, a win will come and that would be big."

Ragan knows the fourth at Talladega was a major achievement for Front Row.

"We were happy to get it," he said. "A top-five is good for a small team like ours. Anytime you are in the top five, the car lasted, the pit crew did a good job and the driver made good decisions.

"We put ourselves in a good position and restarted [for the green-white-checkered finish] 10th. We were running fourth or five and I basically rode the wall when the crash began. I never got hit from behind, that was our big break. I down shifted to get out of the wreck and managed to keep moving forward without getting backwards or crossed up. You need to keep the nose pointed straight. I hit the [No.] 13 [Casey Mears] with the right front fender and turned underneath him. We made it through with a little luck."