HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. – Over the past week, a lot has changed for David Ragan.
After starting the season with another team, the Unadilla, Georgia native quickly found himself named the fill-in driver for the No. 18 M&M’s Crispy Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) usually driven by Kyle Busch. But with Busch injured at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway the week prior, Ragan was thrust into a new role last weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway – his home track.
With just a few days to prepare for Atlanta, Ragan did more than an admirable job given the unfortunate circumstances. He ran in the top-five for a portion of the race before handling woes pushed him back to a still-respectable 18th-place finish.
Now, with a hectic week behind them, Ragan, crew chief Adam Stevens and the entire M&M’s Crispy team are looking forward to settling back into a routine as they head to the West Coast for three consecutive weeks, starting with Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Even though Atlanta brought on the first test of the new 2015 rules package, which includes reduced horsepower and downforce, Las Vegas may be a more realistic litmus test to gauge where the M&M’s Crispy team stacks up against the rest of the competition.
Meanwhile, Ragan and the M&M’s Crispy team know he is still getting adjusted to new surroundings and a new way of doing things. He’s already shown patience in quickly getting up to speed with JGR, and Las Vegas certainly will be yet another building block.
Busch, a Las Vegas native and the regular driver of the No. 18, will be missed as the series heads to his hometown race, but Ragan’s goal is to keep moving the program forward so when Busch does return, the M&M’s Crispy Camry is primed to continue running up front.
In preparing for this year’s three-race Western Swing, the No. 18 team has confidence and will put it on Ragan, hoping the wheel stops at the front of the field as his learning curve continues in the right direction.
DAVID RAGAN, Driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Crispy Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing:
After a hectic week leading into Atlanta, what are your thoughts heading to Las Vegas this weekend?
“Las Vegas is a great track, especially since the reconfiguration several years back. It’s got a lot of grip and it’s a fast track. We’ve run well out there a couple of times, so I’m looking forward to seeing what we can do with a new team to me and our M&M’s Crispy Camry. It’s another one of these fast mile-and-a-half tracks that makes up a lot of our schedule. Hopefully we can take some things we learned at Atlanta and apply them to Vegas. There are some similar characteristics. Just being the second race for me and getting comfortable with these guys and understanding their process, it will be good. I’m sure it will be good for Adam (Stevens, crew chief) and our engineers to have a normal week around the shop to prepare and not have to worry about seats and travel and who’s driving the car. Las Vegas is a great racetrack. The grooves widen out and you can run two- and three-wide around there and it has a lot of speed.”
Do you feel more pressure filling in for Kyle Busch?
“It is a different feeling. I don’t know that I would call it more nervousness, or you can’t really describe the amount of pressure, because there’s a lot of pressure regardless of what car you’re driving. But, absolutely working with a different team, working with a different group of guys, manufacturer – there is just a lot of newness that surrounds it. It’s different, but it’s also a challenge that I’m up for, and it will only make me smarter and better for it with different people. Any time you can get an opportunity to work with some really smart people who go about the weekend maybe in a different way, it only gives me a better experience on what’s going on. I’m not really putting any more pressure on me, but it is something I pay attention to and I do want to do a good job. I want to take care of their racecar and want to give good feedback. M&M’s and Toyota, when Kyle Busch is back, they want a top-tier ride where he can get back in and win. We’ve got to keep learning with the new rules package and being a good teammate to the three other guys at Joe Gibbs Racing. No more pressure, really, but there are definitely a lot of things I’ll pay attention to, making sure I don’t make any mistakes.”
What did you learn during your first race with the No. 18 M&M’s Crispy team last weekend that you can apply to Las Vegas this weekend?
“I’m very encouraged. Adam Stevens (crew chief) and these guys are great to work with. Our pit crew is outstanding and I think we made a bad selection on our pit box at Atlanta – we couldn’t get out of our stall for anything. We’ve got some really good guys and so our first weekend – kind of knock the rust off all of us and I’ll be able to get back and debrief a little bit and hopefully have a little calmer week. These guys didn’t know who has going to drive the cars until Tuesday night of last week. I think this week will go a lot smoother and I’m looking forward to Las Vegas.”
What are the goals for your stint in the M&M’s Crispy car over the next several weeks?
“I’m just looking forward to the opportunity under obviously unfortunate circumstances. I’m just trying to keep the car moving forward so, when Kyle does get back, the team is in good shape and he can jump right back in and be successful. I feel like I’ll be a better driver when this is all over, as well, so it works both ways. You never know what doors it may open in the future, and I get to fill in for a friend and keep a car going. It would be really cool to see the 18 car have some success later in the year and I can feel like I contributed to a little bit of that and kept the car going in the right direction, and just take care of the car for whenever Kyle gets back.”
What did you notice that’s different or better with the No. 18 Camry team during your first weekend with them?
“They’ve got a good stash of M&M’s in the hauler. You know that’s always a plus. But, from a racing standpoint, it’s a larger team. They’re a four-car team with great sponsors and great support. They’ve just got a lot more resources, a lot more tools. You describe the test session last Thursday with data acquisition on the racecar, a couple of extra engineers per team, the information that you can acquire in just a few short hours is a lot. It’s something that, as a smaller organization, you can’t get that information as quick, so I think the learning curve will be a little quicker. Obviously, it’s tough to judge the racecar this year compared to last year because the engine changed, the aero platform changed, Goodyear is adjusting the tires. It won’t be a fair comparison car-to-car, year-to-year, but just the amount of very, very smart people, resources that Toyota gives to Joe Gibbs Racing – and they’ve got some very, very smart people – it’s things that can enable you to open a lot more doors throughout the course of a weekend. You can learn a lot more.”
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