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Returning Ragan, newcomer McDowell form Front Row Motorsports’ 2018 driver lineup

RELATED: Drivers, crew chiefs on the move in offseason

Front Row Motorsports announced its driver lineup Thursday for the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, naming newcomer Michael McDowell and returning driver David Ragan to its two-car organization.

McDowell, 32, joins the Bob Jenkins-owned operation after spending the last four seasons with the single-car Leavine Family Racing group. Landon Cassill, who had a two-year stint with FRR, will not return to the team.

“For me, I’m thankful to have the opportunity and excited to work with Front Row in a new chapter, a new beginning for me,” McDowell told NASCAR.com. “It’s fun when you’ve got a new challenge in front of you and a new set of people. Looking forward to working with David and helping to build this program and getting results. Also you know, I haven’t had a teammate in years and so that’s definitely a part that I’m really looking forward to.”

The 31-year-old Ragan, who described his return to the team as a homecoming, is back for his second straight season and fifth overall. He holds the distinction of bringing Front Row its first victory, at Talladega Superspeedway in 2013.

“I feel like Front Row is one of those teams that, we’re a close-knit family and everybody in the shop, the mechanics on the road, we’re good friends,” Ragan said. “We get along, and it’s a small team so that we all have a pretty big impact on the program itself, so I feel like that’s been a neat experience for me. … It’s a good feeling to be back with Front Row again as we continue to grow and get better on the race track and off the track.”

According to a release provided by the organization, Front Row Motorsports stands to benefit from a strengthened alliance with Ford Performance and Roush Fenway Racing, one of the manufacturer’s flagship teams. Additional details — such as the crew chief lineup, car numbers and sponsors — are to be announced in the coming weeks, according to the team. Front Row also indicated it was “evaluating possible additions to the competition staff.”

MORE: 2018 schedule

The roster move unites two drivers who already have a friendly bond inside the garage and away from the race track. McDowell said the two see each other most days, dropping off their kids in the carpool lane at school, and that their families have grown closer in recent years. That existing relationship sets the table for a give-and-take understanding as teammates who still shoulder a strong competitive will.

“That’s going to be a very unique partnership, but we’re both so competitive that I think it’s great to have someone to lean on and push you to drive,” McDowell said. “With him, he’s very smart, very intelligent, very likeable and is a good leader. That really helps with the crew, the team and the structure there. There’s a good parity there where you can grow and build a program.”

Ragan offered similar praise for McDowell, who frequently squeezed the most performance from his equipment during his time at LFR. McDowell topped the series last season in completed laps. He also finished 34 of 36 points-paying races, another a series best.

“He didn’t have a lot of DNFs, and that’s important for a small team like Front Row Motorsports or LFR,” Ragan said. “We can’t be in the garage with torn-up race cars and DNFs to have the best possible finish that we can. Michael does get a lot out of his race cars and he’s hungry.”

Front Row in general is eager to improve on a 2017 season where its two-driver effort landed 30th and 31st in the points standings. But Ragan says he sees opportunities at venues where the playing field is more level — for himself at restrictor-plate tracks, his strong suit; and for McDowell on road courses, where he has an extensive road-racing background.

Ragan said he hopes for steady gains, especially on the intermediate-sized tracks. He cites Furniture Row Racing’s gradual rise — from a fledgling single-car group in its first six seasons to a championship team this year with Martin Truex Jr. — as a model worth emulating.

“We look at the stat sheets like a lot of people in our industry do, and the stats, they really don’t lie,” Ragan said. “I know there’s variables and different situations where luck is involved, but over the course of a year, I think your good luck and bad luck always even out. … I think for us, we just need to improve on the stat sheets. We need to have more top fives, more top 10s. We need to improve that average finishing position by five spots, I think is a realistic goal.

“We’re not a championship-caliber team overnight or over an offseason, but you’ve got to get to first base before you get to second and third. I think that we’re a couple of years away from being a (playoff) contender and a championship contender car, but we’ve got to be a little more consistent and be a little better on some of the high-speed downforce tracks where we’ve struggled at.”

RELATED: Milestone starts on the horizon for Ragan, McDowell

McDowell says a bolstered technical alliance should help. His former team enjoyed similar modest gains after entering such a relationship with Richard Childress Racing ahead of the 2016 season.

“I think the alliance and having manufacturer support is critical to your success in NASCAR, especially now,” McDowell said. “These teams are so, so maxed out on the competition side in development, engineering, just every person is digging hard to find just small, little gains. So having manufacturer support is huge and the alliance with Roush is just really critical to the development and staying on par with that.”

In some regards, McDowell isn’t entirely a newcomer. The Arizona native made a one-off start in Front Row’s No. 35 car in 2013 at Watkins Glen, an appearance that kindled his relationship with his future team owner.

“That whole entire weekend was fun,” McDowell said. “They put a lot of energy and a lot of emphasis into going there and being competitive, and it was a cool experience for me because at the time I was just start-and-parking and not running the full races in the Cup Series, so it gave me an opportunity to go run. We qualified well and were running well in the race until we broke a track bar, but it was that sort of spark where both of us realized that hey, we can do this and be competitive.

“Bob and I had stayed friends and remained close in the years after that, and I always sort of felt like there would be a time where I’d get to drive for him again. Just time flies and it never really worked out, and then this year it worked perfectly.”