Round Table Discussion: Breaking Down the Mid-Year ‘Silly Season’ with Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing
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.
For the second consecutive year, Michael Waltrip Racing and Peak Performance teamed up to find what they hope to be the next best driver. In last year’s contest, Patrick Staropoli, a man that is attempting to finish medical school after graduating from Harvard University, won it all and earned a chance at racing for Bill McAnally Racing in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West.
This year’s story is a little different.
Christian PaHud, 21, took home the crown in the competition. PaHud, a rather unknown Late Model racer from Ohio is set to race for McAnally with sponsorship from Peak in a K&N Pro Series West race on Oct. 11 at All American Speedway as a teammate to MWR co-owner Michael Waltrip. Edging out 17 other drivers in the competition, he used his experience on and off the track to show he deserves a chance just like Staropoli.
Since he was a child, the Dayton-native has always been racing. With a family history of competition for wins in a race car, it was only natural for PaHud to get into the seat of one. Throughout the three-day competition, all 18 contestants work on a short track, a road course, a speedway, car control, a dirt track, endurance racing along with marketability.
In an exclusive interview with Speedway Digest, PaHud walks us through his journey in the contest, what the future is like for him, how he got to this point and more.
- What was running through your mind when they told you that you had won the contest?
At first, there wasn’t really much going through my mind. There wasn’t much really to think until I look at my parent’s faces and saw the reaction on their faces. It was just kind of a blank mind. Everything we worked for and have done over the past few years has finally come together. It is working out for the best and hopefully I can use this opportunity to prove that I deserve to be here and I can do what I can do.
- What did it mean for them to see you win the whole thing?
It meant the world to them. We put so much into it. We have taken food off of the table just to get race track at times just so we have that shot to do better on a weekend. It just means so much to me that they have followed me and backed me to this point. They give me a drive to show what I can do and show I have what it takes and show what we have done when we come together.
- What did you learn while working with Michael Waltrip, Clint Bowyer, Brian Vickers, Jeff Burton and Danica Patrick?
All the contestants and everybody talked about how much fun it was for everybody around to have Clint and everybody else around to help out as much as possible, as much as they could. Learning from them was definitely an experience; learning from Danica during the whole press releases and commercial shoots and Clint helping me out on my line. Everything on and off the track; it was just really cool to have that experience to be able to move on to do other racing stuff knowing that they were there to help you and give you what they could
- How did you first find out about the contest?
My cousin gave me a call when he heard about it on the internet. I actually watched it last year and saw they were doing it again this year, and I thought, whether we made it or not, it would be a good opportunity to put my name out there. Making it into the show was accomplishment alone, let alone winning it.
- Going into it, did you think you were going to win it?
At first, it was mainly an exposure thing. There were some great names in the competition, and the more I thought of it and the closer it came time to do it – I thought: why just go into it with the thought of that it’s good exposure? Let’s go out and win this. It worked out for the better. Somehow, we ended up winning it.
- If you didn’t win the contest, what were you going to do?
This wasn’t really a make or break opportunity for me. We were doing all of the stuff on our own and racing as a family. I wasn’t going to end my racing career just because I didn’t win, but it helps me in my racing career either way. It shows millions (of people) that I have what it takes. Even if nothing comes of it past this one race, I’ll still go back to racing as a family and do my own thing.
- Has all of this attention been over whelming for you?
Not necessarily. I’m one of those people that doesn’t like to sit still for very long and I don’t like to hang around and do nothing. Now I actually have a reason to get up and do stuff. I like doing press conferences, radio interviews and phone calls. That kind of keeps me calm and relaxed; getting me ready for the next race to come. It is helping the time pass before my first K&N race, so that way it won’t seem like it takes forever to get here.
- Do you feel like without this chance, you might not have received a chance to race in a NASCAR sanctioned division?
It is kind of debatable. You don’t know what may come and what might not come. At the point in my life that I’m at now, it probably wouldn’t have come in the near future. It definitely helps me to run a NASCAR sanctioned event and get the chance to race in the K&N Series to show what I can do.
- How does your background in racing help prepare you for the next step in your career?
I have raced a little bit of everything. I raced go-karts for 11 years and Legends cars and Late Models. Going from one car to another is hard to do. I guess you can say that going back and forth from car to car is a big step either way. It will help me when it gets time to get into a K&N car. I’ve gone from car to car so much that I’ll be able to pick it up and take over to do what I need to do to get the most out of the car as possible.
- What do you feel like you need to prove when you go out on track?
I really don’t think I have to prove a lot. I don’t know if there are things that really need to be proved. Patrick already showed that this competition really isn’t a joke. This is a racing competition; it’s not just a TV show. He kind of made a little impression on me to do well. Again, I don’t feel that I have to prove that I can do it. Everything will work out sooner or later.
- You see what this contest has done for Patrick Staropoli with the win earlier this year. What can you learn from what he has done on the track?
We have talked quite a bit about what is going to happen in the future and what is going to happen out in California before the race. It is good knowing that I can call him when I need to and talk to him about what is going to happen.
- What’s your ultimate goal for the foreseeable future?
It would be nice to go out and win this race and then maybe make a few more K&N starts here and there if we can. If not, I’d be perfectly fine coming back home and racing with my family.
Michael Waltrip is known for his humorous character. However, he has notably taken his one-of-a-kind personality to help develop Michael Waltrip Racing from a marketing standpoint.
Over the past few years, MWR has teamed up with partners such as Five-Hour Energy, Aaron's and NAPA to create some interesting TV-spots. This year, with Brian Vickers driving the No. 55 Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota on a full-time basis, the organization is working with Aaron's on a brand new commercial.
Vickers is not known for his television skills like Waltrip. However, over the years, Vickers has done multiple commercials, albeit not as outstanding as Waltrip's which have gained notoriety amongst his peers.
This commercial features Vickers in a bathtub - yes a bathtub. Then Waltrip, his boss and two-time Daytona 500 champion, shoves his way through a crowd of teenage girls - showcasing his comical point-of-view. It might be far fetched, but what commercial with Waltrip has not been one that catches the eye of race fans? He even teamed up with Mark Martin over the past two years for some commercials with Aaron's.
The commercial is a part of Aaron's “Own the Life You Want” campaign. This campaign puts a greater emphasis on how “Aaron’s makes owning easy through lease ownership, so you can own the life you want.” Vickers earned his first top-five finish of the 2014 season at the Texas Motor Speedway this past weekend, and continues to improve in his return to full-time racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.