30 April 2015
NASCAR: Erik Jones gets Cup run as Ragan heads to MWR
David Ragan will drive for Michael Waltrip Racing for the rest of the year as Erik Jones heads for his official Cup début at Joe Gibbs Racing.
The game of injury-induced musical chairs in the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has entered a new round this week with confirmation that David Ragan is heading to Michael Waltrip Racing with a full-time ride for the rest of the season while Erik Jones is set to take over the #18 at Joe Gibbs Racing.
"It's going to be awesome knowing when I climb in the #55 at Kansas that car will be mine the rest of the season," said Ragan. "I look forward to working with Clint Bowyer, the crew and shop employees at MWR. It's tough what's happened to them this year but I hope I can come in and make 2015 something special."
Ragan started the year as a full-time driver for Front Row Motorsports, but was called up by JGR to take over in the #18 car when regular driver Kyle Busch broke his leg and foot in a support race accident at Daytona International Speedway at the first round of the year in February. Busch is expected to return in June or early July once he has completed his recuperation, but this has yet to be confirmed.
Ragan will have one last outing in the car at Talladega Superspeedway this weekend before moving to MWR for the 11th round of the season at Kansas. The 29-year-old has been handed a longer term deal by MWR to take over the seat of the #55 car in place of Brian Vickers, who was forced out of competition in March after a recurrence of blood clotting issues. The need for Vickers to be on blood thinners means he cannot race competitively in the meantime, and he has missed the last five Cup races as a result.
Brett Moffitt took over the #55 in Vickers' absence and claimed a career-best eighth-place finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway in March. MWR team co-owner Michael Waltrip himself will be in the car for this weekend's race at Talladega Superspeedway. However with no information on when or indeed if Vickers will be able to race again, the team has now taken the decision to hire Ragan to race the car for the rest of 2015.
"Life has thrown a lot at MWR the first part of this racing season, but our team has stood tall and worked through it," said Waltrip. "Our original plans for the #55 team have been challenged since December and we felt it was important for our employees and our sponsors to solidify the remainder of the 2015 season.
"The opportunity to bring David Ragan into the team is incredible for a number of reasons. He will bring experience, consistency and a lot of confidence based on how he has been running with our Toyota team mates at Joe Gibbs Racing. He also puts the #55 team and Aaron's right back into the Chase for the Sprint Cup contention, which is a very positive turn of events for that team."
While the announcement means that Vickers will not return to the #55 this season even once he's recovered from his current health issues, the team says he's very much still a part of their family.
"There is absolutely no question about Brian Vickers' ability, but there remains a question of his availability," explained Waltrip. "We are going to remain very close with Brian while he works on his plan to return. We have told him that MWR is here when he has a clear picture about what the future holds, but we don't need to add any timeline pressures. He is working with a lot of medical advisors and once he has established his plan, we will sit down and discuss next steps."
Moffitt meanwhile will now take over in the #34 Front Row Motorsports entry, the car that Ragan originally started the year in and which has been driven in the interim by Roush Fenway Racing development driver Chris Buescher. Moffitt will continue to remain under contract to MWR and Waltrip said that the 22-year-old Iowan would continue to be a part of the team's plans in the future.
"I'm really proud of the incredible job Brett Moffitt has done for us in the #55, he has been a big part of this organization for the last couple of years and he will continue in that role," said Waltrip. "With the limited number of starts Brett has in this industry, he has proven that he has the talent to be a full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup driver and we are still committed to helping him get that opportunity."
Ragan's move to MWR has been triggered in part by JGR's desire to hand some Cup race experience to 18-year-old Camping World Truck Series regular Erik Jones, who will now take over the #18 at Kansas for his official series début and thereafter remain the car until Busch returns.
"I'm pretty excited and grateful for the opportunity to drive the #18 M&M's Toyota Camry in the Sprint Cup Series and make my début for Joe Gibbs Racing," said Jones. "This is a really good opportunity for me.
"We are going to try to manage our expectations and if we can go out and get a top-15 run and gain some experience, that would be a great day for us," he pointed out. "I'm also excited about representing M&M's, a great longtime partner at JGR and such a well-known brand. I am looking forward to getting behind the wheel of the M&M's Toyota at Kansas."
As well as competing in this year's Truck Series, Jones has also made eight starts in the second-tier Xfinity Series and among his five top-five finishes has already claimed his maiden win at Texas. JGR is still working on the logistics surrounding weekends where the Truck and Cup series are competing in different locations.
Jones actually took over the team's #11 Sprint Cup car at Bristol Motor Speedway two weeks ago when regular driver Denny Hamlin had to pull out during an early rain delay complaining of neck and back spasms. However Jones was not credited as the official driver on that occasion as Hamlin had already made the start.
Jones went on to bring the car safely home in 26th place despite only finding out he was going racing with no practice or preparation literally just minutes before the engines were fired.
"To see somebody that young get thrown into that situation, he handled it very good, smooth. On the radio he was really good, and I think it was a real experience for him," team owner Joe Gibbs said at the time. "I thought he handled all of that exceptionally well.
"Erik, I think, has a very bright future," added Gibbs. "I think it's going to be fun to work with him in the future." The future, as is so often the case, has turned out to be here much sooner than anyone expected.
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