Ryan Sieg was “mad.”
While running eighth in Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway a Brandon Jones crash with two laps to go left Sieg thinking the worst going into overtime.
“I thought we were going to finish eighth and now we have to restart over again,” Sieg told NBC Sports.
The reaction by the 32-year-old from Tucker, Georgia, was likely instinctive. In five previous full-time years on the Xfinity circuit, Sieg has never had an average finish better than 17.8 and had only nine top 10s in 169 starts.
Things have changed in 2019.
In overtime, Sieg avoided a four-car wreck among the leaders coming to the white flag. On the last overtime attempt, he restarted fifth and lost one spot before the checkered flag.
It was his second top 10 to start the season on top of placing 11th a week before at Atlanta. It also was his best finish on a 1.5-mile track.
That leaves Sieg with a career-best position of eighth in the point standings. His previous best through three races was ninth in 2016.
Sieg said his Las Vegas experience was the most fun he’s ever had in a race.
“It was definitely wild,” Sieg said.
New and Improved
Sieg is used to wild racing.
But the wild he’s experiencing at the front this year is different than previous seasons.
“You’d get side-by-side with a couple of drivers and just kind of cringe ’cause you were worried about them holding their line,” Sieg said. “This year I’ve been racing with the 9 (rookie Noah Gragson), the 11 (rookie Justin Haley), the 22 (Austin Cindric), pretty much all of them, the JR Motorsports cars. You’re passing them and you’re racing them and they’re racing you clean.
“It’s given me a better feeling racing side-by-side with people you can trust, so that’s definitely a positive compared to other years where I think you had some drivers who were in equipment that was a little bit better than they were.”
Now Sieg can say he’s in equipment worthy of his own talents.
Last year, Sieg ended the season 16th in the standings. It tied his career-worst result and was his lowest mark in four seasons.
One culprit was age. Not for him, but the cars he was driving.
“Our cars last year were I think 4 to 5 years old,” Sieg said. “When you’re running cars that are four and five (years) off what the Cup (affiliated) cars are, you can’t beat it. That’s (on top) of being down on horsepower a little bit, down on engineering, down on everything. … I would say the Cup teams in Xfinity were two to three generations ahead of what we had. It makes a big difference.”
Now Sieg is piloting essentially brand new cars bought from Richard Childress Racing.
“‘Cowboy’ (nickname for competition director Kevin Starland), whose been with us for a while, said they’re the best cars we’ve ever had,” Sieg said.
He qualified for the season-opener at Daytona in eighth and stayed in the top 10 most of the day before he finished third.
It was his fourth career top five and his third at Daytona.
“Racing in the top 10 all day you realize it’s a different level of a car and a program,” Sieg said. “When you go out every weekend, 33 races and you have a car you know is going to be off the pace of other drivers it wears on you. It gets tiring, it gets old. You get frustrated with it. You almost just get stuck in that same mold of, ‘OK, that guy’s faster than me, that guys faster than me.’ It gets frustrating but now it’s a lot more fun.”
More with less
Another addition for Sieg’s team is at crew chief.
After Starland served in the position for much of last season, Sieg decided to hire Shane Wilson about two weeks before the team headed to Daytona.
Wilson, a winner of 17 Xfinity races since 2006, worked at RCR from 2014-17 with Brendan Gaughan. In 2018, he was paired with rookie Kaz Grala at JGL Racing and then the very quickly formed Fury Race Cars.
He’s now part of an effort that includes seven full-time employees in addition to the “weekend warriors” Sieg says help them out at the track.
“I don’t want to slight anyone we’ve worked with in the past, but I’ll say Shane is definitely very smart and comes to the race weekend with a plan,” Sieg said. “A big difference is on Fridays we’re not trying to set a fast lap. … We’re really working on the balance on the longer run. A lot of that is how your car is set up. You can go out and cut a fast lap in practice, but 10 laps into the race don’t do you a whole lot of good.”
What Sieg and his team are capable of this week could say a lot about the gains they’ve made.
The series heads to the flat, 1-mile ISM Raceway outside Phoenix, a place Sieg has never finished better than 14th (twice). Last year he earned finishes of 25th and 19th.
“For sure, our flat track results, Phoenix and New Hampshire and some of those other tracks have really been our biggest weakness,” Sieg said. “I’ve never really been to that track with a car I felt has been under me. The goal again is to have a good car for the longer run. It can go green there. … I’m definitely more excited to go there this year than any other year in the past.”