NASCAR's 2011 version of silly season turned out to be as intense as the resolution of its Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship. Since early summer we have experienced the annual fun of tracking the garage rumors as we tried to determine which driver was going to land in what seat not to mention which crew chiefs were going to land on top of what pit box. Even the corporate sponsors for these racing teams often took center stage during silly season. Making it even more interesting is the fact that, as we get closer to the start of a new season, the 2011 silly season festival still hasn't been officially resolved yet.
Throughout all of the numerous silly season scenarios, the name David Ragan seemed to surface in nearly every one of them. That was because of harsh economics that in turn led to major sponsorship problems. It also forced Roush Fenway Racing to make the difficult decision of trimming their operation from four to three teams. In short: Ragan found himself looking for a ride late in the year.
Everyone was expecting a long awaited break out season for Ragan in 2011. There was a brief point in time when it appeared he was going to do just that. He scored his first ever NASCAR Sprint Cup win last July at Daytona and there was even a brief period when he was considered to be a contender for the one of the wild card berths for the 2011 Chase line up. Unfortunately up and down performance levels, combined with bouts of bad racing luck, kicked in again. After completing his fifth full season in Cup racing, Ragan finished 2011 with one win, four top five finishes, eight top tens and 23d in the points.
However, as late summer turned into early fall, Ragan found himself with a huge problem regarding his future with Roush Fenway Racing. There were rampant silly season rumors that said his long time primary sponsor, United Parcel Service, would not be returning with the team. In September, Ragan was told by Roush Fenway Racing that he was free to consider other offers.
These rumors became reality in late October when United Parcel Service officially announced that it had renewed its contract as the official logistics partner of NASCAR but would be severely curtailing its role as a primary team sponsor. Granted it requires a huge sum of money to be the official anything of NASCAR, but in this case it's a very lucrative deal for UPS. They provide a pick up and delivery service for race team at the tracks. In fact, on any given race weekend, the UPS center is often the busy part of any NASCAR garage.
However it was the second half of that UPS press release that hurt David Ragan's cause. Company officials announced they would not be returning as his primary sponsor and opted, instead, to become an associate sponsor for Carl Edwards' Roush Fenway Ford.
At this point you really have to give the Roush Fenway Racing marketing department an A for the effort that went into finding a replacement sponsor for Ragan's team. Sadly, the nation's state of harsh economics simply wouldn't allow that to happen. Roush Fenway officially released Ragan in early December and announced it would become a three team operation for the 2012 season.
Now an official member of the 2011 NASCAR silly season, the rumor mill quickly swept up Ragan and stated he was the front runner to take over the #51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet owned by James Finch. While this operation doesn't have the resources of a Roush Fenway ride, it certainly is considered to be in the upper echelon of the so called second tier teams in Sprint Cup racing.
Despite the presence of some very positive talks between the owner and the driver, a very benevolent Finch realized that the talent of a David Ragan could find himself being offered a better deal. The two men reportedly shook hands, on the possibility of working together, but didn't actually sign a contract. It was a move that would loom very large during silly season.
However the highly unique 2011 silly season hadn't even hit its stride yet. The first surprising development landed on December 6th following the stunning announcement that said Kurt Busch and team owner Roger Penske had "mutually agreed to part ways." That meant the high caliber #22 Shell Pennzoil Dodge seat was now open. Despite a lengthy period of disagreeable behavior, it was still only natural that the silly season cycle would immediately place Busch, a former series champion and frequent race winner, at the top of the list.
Meanwhile the silly season hit hard at Richard Petty Motorsports in the middle of December. Their contract with long time sponsor Best Buy Stores was up for renewal and the garage rumors said their renewal was based on the subsequent replacement of driver A J Allmendinger.
At this point David Ragan had engaged in possible contract talks with the aforementioned James Finch as well as Penske Racing and now Richard Petty Motorsports. He was now in a professional holding pattern waiting to see which move Kurt Busch was going to make.
The silly season dominoes began falling hard and quick on December 21st. First off it was confirmed that Allmendinger had been officially released by Richard Petty Motorsports. A matter of hours later, Roger Penske surprised us all by announcing that he had signed Allmendinger as the new driver of the #22 Dodge. The following day Busch surprised us with the announcement that he was now the new driver of the James Finch ride.
Meanwhile, with the Penske ride now taken along with his original back up plan with Finch also claimed, Ragan's name instantly rose to the top of the list to take over the empty seat at Richard Petty Motorsports. But there was yet another problem with this potential move. It seems that Best Buy Stores opted to move their sponsorship money over to Roush Fenway Racing's #17 and #99 Fords driven by Ragan's former team mates Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards. For the second time in approximately six months, Ragan again found his Sprint Cup future clouded by sponsorship issues.
Just when we all thought that all of these point-counter points were heading to some form of logical conclusion, the silly season sweepstakes started awarding prizes again. Once again the ensuing announcements turned out to be at the expense of David Ragan. During the final week of 2011 word got out that driver Aric Almirola was being considered for the Richard Petty ride. This was confirmed during the first week of January. The announcement also named Smithfield Foods and the U.S. Air Force as sponsors.
Aric Almirola spent the 2011 season in NASCAR's Nationwide Series driving the J R Motorsports' #88 Chevrolet owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr. Realizing that an upper tier Nationwide Series ride was far better than the prospect of of third tier Cup ride, Ragan's name soon became attached as a primary candidate to take over the J R Motorsports seat. But, believe it or not, Ragan got bit by the cruelty of silly season again when the team announced that it had signed up and coming driver Cole Whitt to take over the ride.
No doubt about it, it's been a brutal silly season for David Ragan. While the immediate prospects for the 2012 racing season are not very clear, it certainly doesn't mean Ragan's Sprint Cup career is over. He's already proven that he's a very talented driver and, off the track, a very good ambassador for any sponsor that chooses to be associated with him. Good things will turn up for this driver. It's just a question of when.