The performance of the No. 55 Aaron’s Toyota Camry was a welcome sight for the MWR team who has struggled this season with on-track performance. In fact, Toyota grabbed four of the first seven positions for NASCAR’s longest race of the year. That in itself is encouraging for a manufacturer chasing its third Sprint Cup win of the year. Thursday night was Ragan’s fourth top-10 qualifying run of 2015 as started a season-best fourth at Auto Club (Calif.) Speedway in March.
“You know I am happy. If you would have told me this morning we would have known we were going to qualify in the top-10 this morning, I would have been pleased,” said Ragan. “Our Aaron’s Dream Machine had some really good speed and we were really fast all day in practice and our team made some great adjustments for qualifying here. The track has cooled off a lot and it’s windy and cloudy and we just missed it a little bit that last round. Some of that is just experience, we have to build a notebook together and be in the final round at some of these mile-and-a-halves to get the scenarios played out and make the proper adjustments. I’m real proud of our qualifying effort. To have a top-10 spot to start 600 miles is a good day.”
After starting the season with Front Row Motorsports at Daytona, Ragan headed to Joe Gibbs Racing the following week at Atlanta after Kyle Busch was injured in the XFINITY Series race at Daytona. Ragan ran his ninth and final race for JGR at Talladega knowing he’d have a ride the rest of the season in the No. 55 Toyota for Brian Vickers, who remains sidelined with blood clots.
Ragan’s debut with MWR at Kansas Speedway two weeks ago was rough, so Thursday’s performance was promising for the two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series winner. In Kansas, Ragan flying the colors of race sponsor SpongeBob SquarePants qualified 23rd, but struggled during the race. The 29-year old even spun in the grass and found stuck in the enshrined race logo. Ragan later escaped but finished the race four laps down.
Despite Ragan’s effort on Thursday night, MWR teammate Clint Bowyer will start mid pack in 24th after making it through to the second round of qualifying.
Ragan will make his eighth appearance in Sunday’s 600-mile race. In his previous seven outings, 2011 was his best showing where he finished second to Kevin Harvick after starting eighth driving for Roush Fenway Racing.
“The Coca-Cola 600 is mentally and physically a tough race for a driver,” added Ragan. “It’s tough on our pit crew and tough on the team for making the calls. I’m excited to have a good jump to the weekend. Our pit crew is really going to help us out on Sunday – they are one of the best on pit road and we’re going to have 10-12 pit stops on Sunday so I’m looking forward to leaning on them a little bit. We’re going to go out and race and have some fun.”
Toyota will make its 300th Cup Series start on Sunday.
Follow Chris Knight on Twitter @Knighter01.