Ryan Vargas’ NASCAR Xfinity Series rookie campaign didn’t start off as planned. So Johnny Davis, team owner of JD Motorsports, swapped veteran driver Landon Cassill and he ahead of the race at Dover International Speedway two weeks ago.
The reason for the switch was because the No. 6 Chevrolet had sunk in the owner standings. And with last week’s race at Circuit of the Americas and this weekend’s 300-miler at Charlotte Motor Speedway, there’s qualifying, with the possibility of needing to fall back on your position in the owner standings. After 11 races, the No. 6 car sits 37th, needing to stay above 40th for when there isn’t qualifying. Road course ace Spencer Pumpelly replaced Vargas at COTA.
Prior to getting the nod to run the majority of Xfinity races in 2021, Vargas, 20, had just nine series starts. In the first three months of this season, he’s already ran more races than the previous two years combined.
Getting used to the weekly competition at a lot of racetracks Vargas has never seen before has been a difficult task for the California native.
“It‘s a massive challenge, but I like it,” Vargas recently told Jayski.com. “It‘s by far the biggest challenge I‘ve ever had in racing.
“But we‘ve gone to these races and have run very well at places that I‘ve never been to. That shows the depth of this team. They work very hard, they put good pieces of equipment together and we go out there and overachieve, in my opinion.”
Many times this season, Vargas has shown flashes of true potential. At Martinsville Speedway, the No. 6 car started in the rear and rocketed inside the top 15.
But after the Xfinity cars sat idle for over 36 hours in the rain before resuming on Sunday afternoon (April 11), Vargas’ car was destroyed on the initial restart, running into the rear of another vehicle.
It’s been several little miscues similar to Martinsville, that frustrates Davis, who runs his team on a tight budget, especially during a time where prices have skyrocketed to run because he isn’t able to purchase scuffed tires from another team during the races.
“He got a little too far ahead of where we were at with our program for the dollars we have to spend,” Davis said. “He took some chances and did some things he shouldn‘t have and I called him out.”
In 10 starts this season, Vargas has an average finish of 28.6. His best effort was 18th in the season opener at Daytona International Speedway, despite being caught up in a nine-car pileup on the frontstretch.
When showing up to race, Vargas’ goal is to crack the top 20 in the finishing order. After all, this year’s Xfinity field is stout and top 15s are hard to come by for smaller organizations.
So when Vargas isn’t running well, it’s sometimes a tough pill to swallow, even though he knows his team has his back.
“It‘s definitely tough because you‘ve got people that are looking at just the results and they‘re like, ‘Man, why aren‘t you running up front?’” Vargas said. “Why aren‘t you finishing eighth or ninth, inside the top 15 like you have in the past?‘
“It‘s part of racing. I have a lot of confidence in this team. They believe in me, and I believe in them. They gave me my start.”
Myatt Snider, driver of the No. 2 Xfinity car at Richard Childress Racing, has been roommates with Vargas for just over a year. He sees the internal pressure Vargas puts on himself, whether it’s cold calling potential sponsors or the aftermath of finishing good or bad.
Admittedly so, Vargas leans heavily on Snider.
“I think [Vargas] thinks sometimes that he‘s the only one responsible for things that happen,” Snider stated. “That‘s an easy trap for any driver to fall into. You start to think the responsibility falls exclusively on you, and you can‘t do that sometimes because this is a team sport. Everybody wins and loses in the same way as a team.”
On the bright side, Vargas believes he’s had speed this season. But from a results standpoint, he has little to show.
“I‘m a big proponent of looking at the performance over the results and we‘ve had good performances. We ran through the field at Homestead [Miami-Speedway], we ran well inside the top 15 at the Daytona road course and had speed on par with the leaders. You look at Talladega [Superspeedway], we had speed and led laps.
“We‘ve had the performance and we‘ve had the speed. It‘s just about getting the cards to align and getting that luck.”
With the mistakes behind him, Davis wants Vargas to limit his miscues going forward, such as spinning out at Darlington Raceway late in the race, which led to Colby Howard’s No. 15 Chevrolet (another JDM car) getting torn up on the overtime restart. That same race, the No. 6 car made contact with Josh Williams on pit road, ending his day.
“[Vargas has] got to get to the end without his car torn up, spending more of my money,” Davis said. “You‘ve got to finish the race to be able to race at the end. There‘s nobody in charge but him once that car starts up and it pulls off. I just need to see less mistakes and we‘ve got to find more money.”
Finding sponsorship is something Davis isn’t truly worried about when it comes to Vargas. Among every person in the garage, he said his driver works harder than anybody in the sport to find sponsorship. And it’s paid off by partnering with companies like TikTok, Swann Communications, The Big Squeezy (NFL player Alvin Kamara’s company) and Best Buy, which is reentering the sport this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Davis said, “I‘ve never seen anyone work like he works. I admire the kid 100%; I‘m on his side. But I think this was a lesson he had to learn if he gets in this situation again. If he hadn‘t been so humble, I would have taken him out of the car. The only way to fix it is to find more money.”
There’s a “good handful” of races left on the 2021 schedule that Vargas has yet to acquire sponsorship for. There’s a possibility that leads to other drivers cycling into Vargas’ car, should they bring money to the table.
But for someone that never dreamt of making it to the Xfinity field on a weekly basis, Vargas isn’t going to go down without a fight.
“I feel like I‘ve just got to prove that I belong,” he said. “I‘ve got to prove that I want it. I‘ve got to prove that I can keep up, and I‘ve got to prove that I didn‘t just luck into where I‘m at. I want to prove that I deserve to be where I‘m at.”
Knowing Davis could look elsewhere to replace him, Vargas doesn’t want to blow any more opportunities. But it’s something he believes he does every time he has a poor race.
“I look at every race as my one shot,” Vargas added. “If we have a bad race like we did at Martinsville, I feel like I blew my shot.
“I know opportunities like this in racing don‘t come about. I know there are so many racers in the country that want to be in this position that I‘m in, so I‘ve got to keep it in mind and continue to grow from it.”