Ryan Sieg leading underdogs to open Xfinity season
Ryan Sieg “never really expected” this is where he’d be three races into the Xfinity Series season, as one of two drivers - along with Auto Club Speedway winner Harrison Burton - who has finished in the top 10 each time.
Sieg, who has been competing full-time in the Xfinity or Truck Series since 2010, finished fourth at Auto Club Speedway Saturday to earn consecutive top fives for the first time in his career.
“It’s a big deal, especially since they came at tracks that aren’t really tracks we’d normally get top five finishes at,” the 32-year-old Sieg told NBC Sports. “It’s always fun to be competitive. I don’t think I ever dreamed that this would kind of be the start to the year.”
In the opening three races, the Georgia native has finished ninth (Daytona), third (Las Vegas) and fourth. The top fives match his career-best total, earned last year.
It is the highlight among a few career performances for underdog, independent teams so far this season. Jeremy Clements placed ninth at Auto Club for his first top 10 on the track in 11 starts. Josh Williams of DGM Racing posted his first non-superspeedway top 10 (10th) at Auto Club in his 64th career start.
Sieg sits fourth in the point standings ahead of the final stop of the West Coast swing, Phoenix Raceway (4 p.m. ET Saturday on Fox).
His performance comes after Ryan Sieg Racing had to “scramble” in the offseason. Sieg lost his crew chief last year, Shane Wilson, to a Truck Series team. He also lost a mechanic and the man who did the team’s shocks.
The crew chief role was filled by Kevin “Cowboy” Starland, who was the team’s competition director last year. It also has Michael “Big Mike” Scearce, a former long-time Richard Childress Racing employee, as car chief.
Together, Ryan Sieg Racing brings 12-13 crew members to the track each weekend to work on its two cars, with some coming from Kentucky and Texas.
“We outsource our pit crews to Roush and Stewart-Haas for our two cars, which is nice because you have good pit crews and we’re not losing time on pit road too much,” said Sieg, adding their success is a result of “little upgrades here and there on things. It’s one of those things, you can’t build it overnight. It’s taken a number of years and it’s sort of worked in our favor with some of the Cup teams moving out of the Xfinity Series.”
Cup team that have reduced or completely left the Xfinity Series in recent years include Roush Fenway Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing, Richard Childress Racing (from four full-time cars in 2016 to one in 2020) and Stewart-Haas Racing (two cars in 2019 to one this season).
Adding to his impressive opening stretch is that Sieg’s performance is not coming in new equipment. Last year, Sieg had a few relatively new cars purchased from RCR that he drove to a career-best 12 top-10 finishes and a playoff entry.
Those cars are still in Sieg’s stable but his top fives have been in a RCR car they bought roughly three years ago.
“We sort of rebuilt it to what I was comfortable with and what I thought worked,” Sieg said. “Just seems like we hit it pretty well.”
One of the 2019 cars will be in action this weekend at Phoenix, the flat 1-mile track Sieg has 13 starts. He placed 10th in last year’s spring race, his first top 10 there, before finishing 13th in the fall.
“I think we’re going to go back to what we ran in the spring, we tried something a little bit different in the fall and it didn’t work,” Sieg said.
Watch for Sieg to attempt bold strategy as the season unfolds. At Las Vegas, when NASCAR gave teams an extra set of tires for a competition caution, Sieg’s team opted to wait to use their set until the final stage, which helped put Sieg near the front.
At Auto Club, the team gambled on fuel strategy - attempting to save five laps of fuel over the final 50 laps - but two cautions in that stretch cancelled it out.
What kind of strategy could they employ at Phoenix? It depends on the level of tire falloff.
“Say there’s 110 laps in that last stage,” Sieg said. “If a caution comes out 30 laps into the final stage, what do you do? Do you put your tires on and hope it goes green or do you save your tires and hope there’s a caution later and you can put the tires back on.”
At Phoenix and beyond, Sieg will be watching the cars in front of him to determine his late-race pit strategy.
“If we’re an eighth-place car, we don’t want to do what the top seven does,” Sieg said. “We’re going to do something different.”
Despite his “incredible start,” Sieg’s team is trying to “keep our heads on” and “keep real, smart goals.”
An obstacle is in store this weekend though, as two full-time Cup Series drivers make their first Xfinity start of the season.
“Obviously, you’ve got a couple of aces coming this week with (Brad) Keselowski and Kyle Busch,” Sieg said. “I think you’ll have a better pace at the front of the field if that makes sense ... I’m going to guess Kyle Busch is going to be a half a second faster than if you were to put a rookie in that car. So over the course of a 70-80 lap run, he’s going to lap more guys and make up more time on people. That used to be kind of the thing we’d look at as we tried to stay on the lead lap. I don’t think we’ll have that trouble this weekend, but it’s one of the many things you can look at.”
Sieg observed a track like Phoenix can be a “better opportunity” for a small team like his, however there are disadvantages when going against team’s like Keselowski’s and Busch’s.
“When you get away from one area, like the aerodynamics of a mile-and-a-half, then you’re getting into another, like the brakes,” Sieg said. “You’re up against teams that have better brakes and spend more money on brakes. That’s an important part of Phoenix, obviously. You lose the aerodynamic part, you have another part that comes in where the teams can beat you.”
With Busch and Keselowski present, Sieg’s goal is to run from fifth to eighth.
“I don’t expect to be a contending car for the win,” said Sieg.
Luckily for him, Sieg knows a thing or two about exceeding expectations.