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David Ragan relieved after delivering his best finish for Joe Gibbs Racing

STP 500

STP 500

Jeff Zelevansky

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – David Ragan accepted a congratulatory handshake and pat from team owner Joe Gibbs and then turned to face the news media with a broad smile.

In his fifth start in the No. 18 Toyota, he finally had a result to justify his contention that the team wasn’t struggling as much as it seemed since he took over for injured Kyle Busch.

“It means a lot going forward,” Ragan said of his fifth in Sunday’s STP 500. “It means we’re capable of this type of run. I knew it all along.

“We had top-10 cars but haven’t been able to put together the entire weekend. We’ve had mistakes on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays. In order to run in the top five or have a chance to win these Sprint Cup races, you have to have a perfect weekend.”

Ragan didn’t have one at Martinsville, where he qualified 20th and sustained damage to his Camry in a crash near the midpoint of the 500-lap race.

But he persevered to score his first top five since his May 5, 2013 victory at Talladega Superspeedway.

Even more importantly, it came after a stretch of four consecutive finishes of 18th or worse since moving into the JGR car on an interim basis from Front Row Motorsports. Ragan, who also crashed in practice at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and spun at Auto Club Speedway, admitted to overdriving.

“I wouldn’t call it anxiety,” he said. “I’m disappointed. We’ve run OK but just haven’t finished well. Some of that falls on my shoulders, some on the team and some just bad racing circumstances. Just to get the monkey off our back was good. It gives everyone some confidence going to Texas.

“I’ve been frustrated. We’ve just been working trying to understand the limits that I can go. Being on a team that’s used to running 25th, you have to change the way you drive. You’re racing another group of cars (and) trying to gain their respect. It goes a long way to get a good finish here.”

Ragan said multiple times in postrace interviews that he believed he could win during his stint in Busch’s car. There still is no timetable for Busch’s return, nor has it been announced when Ragan will return to Front Row. In the wake of Busch’s Feb. 21 crash at Daytona International Speedway, NASCAR Talk has reported the plan was for Ragan to drive nine races before turning Busch’s car over to Erik Jones at Kansas Speedway.

“It’s kind of week by week on how Kyle is feeling,” Ragan said. “Certainly that’s a Kyle Busch decision and a Coach Gibbs decision. There are probably a lot of different scenarios that could play out. Obviously, I hope I’m in the car until the transition for Kyle comes back.

“That’s what the team and everybody wants. They don’t want to have to put a third or fourth or fifth driver in, so hopefully Kyle can heal well, and he’ll be back sooner than later, and we would have won a race, and I can go back to Front Row Motorsports and carry a Chase ticket back home. That’d be cool.”