On Sunday, the Unadilla, Georgia native lived up to the expectations everyone thought he would, as he scored an impressive fifth-place finish in Sunday’s STP 500.
The driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Crispy Toyota Camry started 20th but used patience and, when needed, aggression to climb his way through the field. Once the 29-year old finally muscled his way into the top-10, 225 laps from the finish, he never relinquished his progress.
Five laps from the finish, he sat ninth, but on the final restart of the race, Ragan made his charge, while keeping a hungry group of competitors at bay to claim his 15th career top-five finish and improve on a previous season best of 18th at Atlanta (Ga.) Motor Speedway and Auto Club (Calf.) Speedway respectively.
“I feel like we’ve under-performed the last three or four weeks,” said Ragan. “A lot of it has been just mistakes on my behalf, mistakes on the team’s behalf and we’ve been really good. We’ve had some good speed and we’ve had top-10 cars, but we just haven’t been able to have a good, entire weekend.
“Finally, we put together a good race where we weren’t very good Friday and Saturday. We put together a good race today and that’s what’s the most important.”
It was Ragan’s second consecutive top-10 finish at Martinsville. In a bold late-race call, he finished 10th last October with Front Row Motorsports after staying out near the finish.
Overall, it was a big day for Joe Gibbs Racing. Ragan’s finish was trumped by Denny Hamlin’s 25th career Sprint Cup win, but more importantly, the sixth race of the season showed signs that the Huntersville, North Carolina-based team is getting their mojo back.
With Kyle Busch continuing to be sidelined with leg injuries stemming from a hard crash in the NASCAR XFINITY Series season-opener at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway in February, Sunday’s effort gives everyone some much-needed momentum heading into the next race at Texas Motor Speedway on April 11following the Easter break.
While in 16 prior starts, the Fort Worth-based track hasn’t exactly been kind to the two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series winner, Ragan knows how to maneuver the 1.5-mile speedway. Ragan started on the pole in the spring race in 2011 and backed it up with an outside pole in November.
In two weeks, Ragan will search for the win that ultimately will secure him a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. The impetus keeps the No. 18 optimistic after taking Busch to Victory Lane from the pole there in 2013.
As for the rest of the JGR brigade, Matt Kenseth contended for the win late but had to settle for fourth.
Carl Edwards, the fourth competitor for the JGR stable had a solid day as well, but a late-race spin erased a shot at his first top-10 finish of the season. Instead, Edwards had to settle for 17th.
Follow Chris Knight on Twitter @Knighter01.