This NASCAR season has been everything but ordinary. Over the past three months, there have been multiple drivers to miss time due to medical issues, and teams have acted like they are in the MLB or NFL.
Trading drivers seems rather far-fetched, but that is what has occurred in the NASCAR world in 2015.
Following Kyle Busch’s hard wreck at Daytona, where he hit an area of the inside retaining wall that was not protected by the SAFER Barrier, the 29-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series winner was sent to the hospital. With Busch being out for several months, and no announcement on when he will be back other than that it will be before the series returns to Daytona in July, Joe Gibbs Racing made a “trade” with Front Row Motorsports. Well, it would have been a trade, but the small Ford team ended up losing its top driver.
Two-time Camping World Truck Series champion Matt Crafton replaced Busch for the Daytona 500, and David Ragan has since piloted the No. 18 car. Meanwhile, Brian Vickers, who missed the first two races due to cardiovascular surgery over the off-season, returned to the seat of his Michael Waltrip Racing car at Las Vegas. Evidently, his blood clots returned, and after announcing he would be out for at least three months, MWR was forced to put rookie Brett Moffitt into the car.
Now, with Erik Jones set to take over the No. 18 Toyota for JGR until Busch’s return, Ragan is set to join MWR for the remainder of the season. If and when Vickers come back is still in question, but our Speedway Digest team takes a look at some key questions that have come up with all the announcements as of late in our first round table discussion.
1. David Ragan was announced as the driver of the No. 55 Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing, replacing Brian Vickers for the remainder of the season. After earning one top 10 and an average finish of nearly 20th this season for Joe Gibbs Racing, what makes Ragan a hot commodity for this team?
Brett Winningham: I see Ragan fitting in with the Michael Waltrip Racing team very well. Even though the finishes with the Joe Gibbs Racing team could have been better, I think he will perform just as well with MWR. The team has been off lately, earning only three top 10 finishes in 2015. With the addition of Ragan, it could potentially improve the team moving forward. It also allows Ragan a much better chance at making the Chase for the Sprint Cup if he can score a victory or record enough solid finishes to get into the Chase via points.
Steven Wilson: Ragan has been able to keep the car clean through the events he's run with JGR aside for an issue at Bristol. For one, it makes him look good to a team that is going to be able to give good information on what the car is doing and how to make it better with his many years behind the wheel. But most of all, he can bring the car home in one piece.
Joseph Wolkin: Ragan is a marketable driver. He was the face of AAA when he first came into the sport, and eventually did the same for UPS. Though he has had some struggles with Front Row Motorsports, the chance with Joe Gibbs Racing has shown that he is capable of running up front. His results don’t show it, but Ragan has proved thus far in 2015 that he can and will be a consistent driver once again.
Dustin Albino: Ragan has always been a solid talent behind the wheel of a racecar. Ever since he was with Roush Fenway Racing in his rookie year, he established himself as a threat to make the Chase. However, in 2012 when Ragan jumped into the No. 34, that wasn’t the best move at the time. But, it was the only ride available in the Cup Series. A big reason why Ragan landed the No. 18 ride following Kyle Busch’s injury is because he is more established and a true veteran of the sport.
2. With Ragan going to Michael Waltrip Racing, Vickers will need to find sponsorship if he is healthy before the end of the season. What does this indicate for Vickers' career?
Wilson: Vickers has had such an up and down past 18 months or so with his health coming back early this year for two events to have to get out the car the next week. With him being back on medications that will take him out the car for the foreseeable future, throwing in the recent announcement he will have to take a hard look at his abilities going forward. Will he be able to run 400-500 mile events? Do the rewards out-weigh the risks?
Albino: This is a real bummer for Vickers. The big question is will he be healthy? No one knows. The blood clots seem to be reoccurring very often. Vickers first has to put his health first. As hard as that may be, he needs to continue being smart about the way he approaches his life.
The fact that Aaron’s stuck behind Vickers through thick and thin, and now that Ragan is hopping in the No. 55 for the remaining of the 2015 season has to be eating Vickers alive. There is no telling where his career may go from here, but getting healthy is the number one priority.
Winningham: At this point for Brian Vickers, I don’t see him returning to the No. 55 Toyota next year if he ends up sidelined for the rest of the season. The Michael Waltrip Racing team cannot afford to be effected by this week after week. When and if Vickers returns, it will be interesting to see how the situation will unfold.
Wolkin: This is a very difficult situation for everyone involved. Obviously, Waltrip’s team was trying to prevent this situation, but it appears Vickers’ career is in jeopardy with this latest health issue. The team needed a season-long replacement to give the sponsor a driver that is consistent behind the wheel, which puts Vickers out of a ride if he can come back before the end of the year.
If he can beat the odds and race again, which he seemingly will be able to do once doctors take him off Xarelto, it appears he will have to find sponsorship to run a third car for the team. Co-owner Rob Kauffman has put his company on the team’s cars before, and this is a situation where he probably would do so at least until the remainder of the season. However, he’s in a bit of a pickle if Ragan performs well, which would mean he could likely be a free agent once again.
3. Prior to his stint with Joe Gibbs Racing, Ragan was slated to run for Front Row Motorsports for the fourth straight season. What opportunities are presented to the Georgia native now that he has publicity on his side, along with a possible developing relationship with MWR's sponsor, Aaron's?
Wolkin: This opportunity with MWR is gigantic for Ragan. Performing well, he can see himself in the No. 55 car in 2016, and possibly locking up a multi-year deal. However, if he struggles, Ragan could be sent back to a lower-tier team, such as Front Row Motorsports. This is his last big chance at getting a top ride in the Cup Series, and his future will be based on his performances. There are several drivers with expiring contracts this year, and if MWR opts to put another driver in the car for 2016, there should be some openings for him.
Albino: Ragan is now a veteran of the Sprint Cup Series, and he is able to have sponsors behind him, while previously driving the No. 34 the past three seasons, Front Row Motorsports didn’t have a primary sponsor to fund him. Now that he knows where he will be for the remaining of the 2015 season, it will be critical for the Georgia native to perform. He was also put in a tough situation by taking over the No. 18 for Kyle Busch. Erik Jones is the future of Joe Gibbs Racing, and team owner Joe Gibbs hinted that the young 18-year-old would be in the Cup Series soon following his first career NASCAR XFINITY Series win at Texas. However, Ragan is now granted an opportunity to drive for a sponsor in Aaron’s that is fully committed to Michael Waltrip and Michael Waltrip Racing. Ragan may have found himself a quality long-term ride.
Winningham: If David Ragan can build a relationship with the Michael Waltrip Racing organization, it would more than likely save his racing career. It would also be a huge confidence boost since he entered the 2015 season not knowing how many races he could run with Front Row Motorsports due to sponsorship issues. At the same time, if Ragan cannot produce for MWR, it could also hurt his racing career.
Wilson: Other than being with JGR, giving him a shot to do some good things in a racecar was still a temporary spot for him not knowing when he would be out of the car and go back to Front Row Motorsports. This gives him one of his best shots to have the engineering and sponsorship money behind him with MWR and Toyota to back his effort for the remainder of 2015. This also is an opportunity for him to move into 2016 with a team that is better equipped to give him more wins in the Sprint Cup Series. Obviously, having long-time MWR sponsor Aaron's onboard gives him the path to continue with MWR if and when Vickers may return or if he doesn't, he will have a legitimate shot at keeping the seat with his knowledge and ability to bring a car home clean.
4. As Ragan departs Front Row Motorsports, the team is looking to replace him. Originally, he did not have funding to run the full season in the No. 34 car, but as of now - the team has run every race. Chris Buescher has been the main man behind the wheel, but what route should the team go after losing its lead driver?
Albino: It will be interesting in the upcoming weeks to see what Front Row Motorsports decides to do with the No. 34 car. It seems as if the team is giving Roush Fenway Racing XFINITY Series driver Chris Buescher the go behind the wheel. He is a fellow Ford driver who has done a respectable job in his first four races behind the wheel with an average finish of 24.8. However, Bob Jenkins doesn’t want to go in the hole in regards to money, and without a primary sponsor on board, it will be hard to do. Giving young drivers an opportunity is always a good thing for the sport. However, is the driver up for the challenge? Maybe rotating a few younger drivers in that car for the remainder of the season is the way to go. But what if Vickers ended up in that ride? Only time will tell.
Wolkin: Chris Buescher is the obvious choice for the races that his XFINITY Series ride does not conflict with the Cup Series schedule. If he runs more than seven events this year, he will not be eligible for the Rookie of the Year when he races full-time in the Cup Series (possibly as soon as next year or 2017). Expect Buescher and Brett Moffitt to split this ride, with an occasional shot for young drivers, such as Ryan Ellis, Ryan Reed, Darrell Wallace Jr. or another driver who is associated with Ford.
Winningham: The Front Row Motorsports organization should continue to field the No. 34 Ford with Chris Buescher. Since making his debut with the team earlier this year, Buescher has finished inside the top 30 in each of those starts. In his Sprint Cup Series debut at Auto Club Speedway, Buescher left the two-mile oval with a 20th-place finish. In his last start at the Bristol Motor Speedway, Buescher walked away with a 25th-place finish. Based on these results, I see Front Row continuing to field a Sprint Cup Series entry with the young driver.
Wilson: This puts Brett Moffitt, who's already been in the car for Front Row Motorsports, in a position to be in a more stable seat week in and week out if he is given the opportunity. MWR would obviously like to keep Moffitt, but the lack of sponsorship to fund a third car leaves him out of that. Chris Buescher won't be able to compete each week for FRM due to obligations in the XFINITY series, where he's running for the championship, but gives him more seat time at tracks he's in need of to move on with his career.