A puzzling decision for Joe Gibbs Racing and Front Row Motorsports
ednesday afternoon saw the end of the mini-Silly Season as Joe Gibbs Racing tapped David Ragan to fill in for the injured Kyle Busch. Meanwhile, Front Row Motorsports announced that Joe Nemechek will fill in for Ragan in their #34 car. The decision was a puzzling one for all involved and ended a mad scramble for a temporary spot in one of NASCAR's biggest rides. Yet the question remains what motivated both sides to act as they did when other options seemed readily available.
Manufacturer identity still matters in NASCAR. Although the cars bear little resemblance to what sells on a showroom floor, the car maker's badge on the front can dictate who you team with on the track and who supports your operation behind the scenes. JGR is Toyota's flagship team at the Sprint Cup level. So it would stand to reason that the team would want to bring aboard someone who is already a part of the Toyota racing family. At the very least, they would want someone who has some form of brand identity with Toyota even if they presently raced for another manufacturer.
The cupboard wasn't exactly overflowing but there were drivers out there who fit one of those criteria. We looked at some of the options earlier this week; Mark Martin, Parker Kligerman and Matt Crafton all seemed like good choices. Erik Jones is a driver already in the JGR developmental system and Bubba Wallace recently left it. Maybe one of the above wasn't interested (Martin), maybe they were not experienced enough at the cup level (Crafton, Jones, Wallace). I have a hard time coming up with a reason to reject Kligerman but maybe his eight race run with Swan last year upset someone in the organization. But for all of them to miss out?
This is no slight on David Ragan. At this point in his career, Ragan is who he is. He has a pair of Sprint Cup wins; both at restrictor plate races but Sprint Cup wins nevertheless. His highest ever points finish was a 13th place finish back in 2008 for Jack Roush. Since that time he's generally landed in the mid-20s. He will lead a few laps, be competitive at a handful of races and is unlikely to embarrass himself or his team. All of those traits are admirable, and indeed valuable for a team like Front Row Motorsports.
But this is not FRM. This is Joe Gibbs Racing. This is a team that expects to compete for a championship every year. They expect their cars to lead laps and to run at or near the front all race every race. They signed Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth in consecutive offseasons; this is not a team that accepts running two laps down in 28th place. They let both J.J. Yeley and Joey Logano go because neither met the high expectations that come with racing for JGR. Can anyone say that they expect Ragan to do better than Logano did?
Meanwhile, the decision is equally stunning from the perspective of FRM. They swapped points between the #34 and #35 cars this past offseason, thinking that Cole Whitt would need the security over the first five races. They had David Ragan's veteran presence and ability to get the most out of their equipment to fall back on. Now that security blanket is gone and the tenuous sponsors that the team has could easily fade away if Nemechek fails to qualify.
“Front Row” Joe may well have a great qualifying reputing but it's one that relies heavily on efforts done more than 15 years ago. His last pole start was in 2008 and the last before that was ten years ago. His average start over the last two years is 40th position. In a 43 car field, that's not good and that perilously close to failing to qualify at all. His average finish is little better (36.3) although that number is influenced by a number of start-and-park efforts. Has Nemechek had a career to be proud of? Absolutely. But at 51 years of age, his best years are long behind him and he's far from the best available Ford driver.
What's even more troubling are the rumors swirling around Front Row's decision. Reportedly, the team wanted to bring David Reutimann aboard to fill in for Ragan. The idea made sense on the outside as Reutimann has experience running tolerably well for underfunded teams. If that was the plan, it hit an unexpected snag when it was determined that Reutimann had not renewed his NASCAR license this past season. In other words, he saw so little chance in returning at any NASCAR level that he didn't bother to pay the annual license fee to maintain his eligibility.
The possibility that FRM released Ragan without verifying their backup plan is a chilling one. Without question JGR would have had to make some sort of arrangement with the team for them to let Ragan go. Yet how much cash would Gibbs have to part with to offset the #34 team's collapse? Did the check they cut have enough zeroes that FRM didn't bother to have Ragan's replacement decided and in place before they cashed it? If so, it would be a terrible failure in planning and one only compounded by taking Nemechek as the fallback position.
Old school Nemechek diecast from Amazon
Ford has a number of drivers in its stable who would make a far better replacement for Ragan. If the team wanted a veteran hand, Elliott Sadler is available and has a ton of Cup experience. The aforementioned Bubba Wallace is now in the Ford camp with Roush Fenway Racing. He's joined at the Xfinity level in a Ford by Dakoda Armstrong and Ryan Reed, who just picked up his first win this past weekend at Daytona.
These drivers are the future of the Blue Oval brand at the Cup level. They have the talent but are short on experience. Their presence would bring immediate attention to Front Row. Moreover, the seat time needed to accelerate their growth could enable FRM to negotiate for additional support from both Ford and from the Ford super teams. They would receive whatever compensation was promised from Gibbs plus the added factory support plus the idea of a hot young driver in the car to attract sponsors. Could they put an extra car or two on the wrecker? Perhaps. But frankly, this is the only way that FRM is going to get a top shelf driver in its car because the larger teams will snap these guys up when they're “ready”. The risk might be elevated but it's a manageable one that can be offset.
So the decision to release Ragan and replace him with Nemechek was a puzzling one. It's almost as puzzling as the one made by Joe Gibbs Racing to request Ragan to replace Kyle Busch in the first place. Without question, both moves are ones that will garner plenty of attention in the weeks ahead- and plenty of second-guessing if it doesn't work out for either team.