Forget talent. Forget performance. Forget that you won a race last year in NASCAR’s foremost series.
That wasn’t what mattered to many of the car owners who talked to David Ragan during his frustrating offseason search for a new job.
Here’s Ragan’s wry assessment of the first few questions in a typical Sprint Cup job interview: "How much money do you have? Do you have a sponsor? How much money you got in your back pocket?"
Ragan spoke last week during the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway.
"That is a big part of it," he said of the money. "These team owners want to know, ‘Do you have any connections in the world of companies? Do you have any friends that are on marketing boards? Do you have any CEO buddies that are your next-door neighbor’s cousin?’ "
During an offseason that found him second in the running for nearly every available Cup ride, Ragan finally landed at Front Row Motorsports, where he’ll start the process of rebuilding his career.
After five straight seasons in Roush Fenway Racing’s well-heeled No. 6 flagship Ford, Ragan found himself out of work. Less than 24 hours after the Nov. 20 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, team owner Jack Roush told reporters it was unlikely he would have room for Ragan at RFR.
Drew Blickensderfer, Ragan’s crew chief, left for Richard Childress Racing, where he’ll make the calls for Jeff Burton this year. Layoffs and job changes broke up the rest of the No. 6 team.
To some extent, Ragan can blame the economics of the sport for the loss of his RFR ride. He can also blame his own performance. After narrowly missing the Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2008 and finishing 13th in the final standings, Ragan was 27th, 24th and 23rd in the succeeding three years.
The affable driver from Unadilla, Ga., suffered from comparisons with his teammates. Yes, Ragan got his first Cup victory, at Daytona in July, and added his first two Cup poles to his resume in 2011, but his efforts paled in comparison to those of teammates Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards.
As a consequence, the UPS sponsorship that had sustained Ragan’s Cup effort jumped on the bandwagon of Edwards, who lost the Cup title to Tony Stewart in a tiebreaker. At the same time, UPS cut its commitment to the sport to what will be predominantly an associate sponsor’s placement on Edwards’ car.
Given the economics, RFR will run three full-time Cup cars instead of four this year, and Ragan’s No. 6 was the casualty.
Ragan came tantalizingly close to landing the No. 22 Dodge seat vacated by Kurt Busch at Penske Racing after Busch’s garage tirade during the race at Homestead provided the impetus for the split.
Ultimately, the ride went to AJ Allmendinger, who obtained a release from his final contract year at Richard Petty Motorsports to pursue the job with Penske. Ragan was disappointed but moved on, and he’s still not sure why he didn’t get the job.
"I never really got a clear answer from those guys," Ragan said. "I have to think that AJ is an open-wheel guy, has an open-wheel background, and those guys stick together — kind of like the stock car short-track guys. You stick together with your friends and your compadres.
"I would think that our statistics and our age . . . a lot of that stuff runs pretty parallel. I really, really don’t know. But when they told me that the job was no longer on the table, it wasn’t my deal to dwell on it. It was time to move on. Time will tell if that was a good or bad thing."
Ragan received strong consideration from James Finch’s Phoenix Racing, but Busch snagged the seat in Finch’s No. 51 Chevrolet. Ragan also had discussions with RPM about the No. 43 Ford vacated by Allmendinger — talks he characterized as "nothing more than just conversation" — before Aric Almirola was tapped for that ride.
Ragan certainly wasn’t lax in his job search, and the nervous moments he spent during the offseason weren’t from lack of effort.
"When we got back from Homestead, Drew took a job with Childress, a lot of guys were laid off, some guys changed jobs, and I just knew that it was going to be a tough offseason," Ragan said. "At that time, the Penske ride was opening, and so I asked for my release (from RFR) early, so I could go out and talk to some of these teams.
"Obviously, the Penske ride was the top ride that opened up that no one really saw happening. But, looking back at it, I’m glad I’m still in a Ford. I’m glad I’m still in the Cup series. I didn’t want really to go to a Nationwide car or the Truck series, depending on what opportunities were there in the Sprint Cup Series.
"But to be with Front Row Motorsports — a locked-in car that’s going to run the full season — we know that there are going to be some tough obstacles in front of us, but it’s going to be fun, and I am young, so I’m willing to put in a few extra hours."
Front Row expects to run three cars for the full season, with Ragan in the No. 34, David Gilliland in the No. 38 and a driver yet to be announced in the No. 37. All three Front Row cars still have sponsorship inventory available, though owner Bob Jenkins in the past has supplemented the operation from his own pocket.
For Ragan, the break between seasons was full of life lessons.
"You sit up a lot of nights and think, ‘What’s going to happen?’ " Ragan said. "Being 26 years old, I’m sure this won’t be my last offseason where I will be a free agent, but definitely, I was matured some over the offseason, and you learn a lot more about how these teams are structured, who really does call the shots, what decisions the sponsors play in who the driver’s going to be.
"I definitely learned a lot about the sport."
He also had time to ask longtime girlfriend Jacquelyn Butler to marry him. The wedding is planned for December.
"My life as I know it is almost over," Ragan quipped.
Despite the pressures of a wedding, however, the next offseason promises to be much less stressful than the one Ragan just endured.