What started off as a pleasant surprise this year has become the norm for Ryan Sieg Racing in the Xfinity Series.
Through eight races, Ryan Sieg and his No. 39 Chevrolet have yet to finish worse than 12th.
The team based just outside of Atlanta, Georgia, has an average finish of 8.6, sixth-best among series regulars.
Heading into the second off-weekend of the year for the Xfinity Series, Sieg is probably still cleaning up from the Larry’s Hard Lemonade shower he received after he placed fifth last Friday at Richmond.
According to veteran crew chief Shane Wilson, the second non-superspeedway top five of Sieg’s career was made possible by what Sieg didn’t do a month earlier at ISM Raceway in Phoenix.
By not tearing up their short-track car at Phoenix, it allowed the team to take that car’s setup and add Richmond-specific tweaks that “worked out pretty good,” Wilson said Tuesday night on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Late Shift.”
Sieg has kept his cars clean so far, finishing on the lead lap in every race but one (Bristol, 12th) and earning five top 10s. That’s the most in his seven-year, 133-race Xfinity career.
Two weeks before Richmond, Sieg captured the first stage win of his career by not pitting late in Stage 2 at Texas Motor Speedway.
What Wilson has accomplished with the family owned team is a product of a late union and a “big departure” from what Wilson was used to just a few years ago with Richard Childress Racing.
Since then, Wilson wakes up every Monday around 3:45 a.m. at his home in the Charlotte area and drives around 200 miles to the team’s shop in Sugar Hill, Georgia.
“Most times I get home by Wednesday night and then we go race,” Wilson said. “That’s kind of been my schedule so far. A little here, a little there. I chase parts in the Charlotte area, Mooresville some days. It gets me home a little quicker. There’s a few of us that make the trip down here and they have a nice little, kind of like a college dorm up above the shop and some of us stay there. It’s been fun. It’s different, it’s fun and it’s been challenging.”
Another part of Sieg’s surprise performance this year are the cars he’s been keeping unscathed. The team bought three new cars from RCR in the offseason.
“We had the ECR engine deal and it was good year to buy cars from RCR because they downsized from numerous Xfinity cars to a single car,” Wilson said. “I feel like we got good stuff.
“It’s a good relationship. The Siegs bought or leased engines from RCR for many years ever since they’ve been racing in the Truck Series. So they’re a good engine customer to ECR, bought a lot of chassis from Richard. That’s kind of where it stops. There’s a few different tiers that you can get nowadays and we don’t get simulation or any kind of parts tracking or the database or anything like that.
“Chevrolet helps us with a few tools. We have what we need and we don’t have a whole lot extra, but we have enough to compete.”
Wilson said recruiting talent to help out the small team is made easier with fewer Xfinity teams.
But he’s not just getting help from the North Carolina and Georgia areas.
“I got a good friend of mine doing our shocks now and shipped some more of those up to him in Vermont,” Wilson said.
Wilson said the experience reminds him of the days “when we volunteered and helped out our best friend.”
“Ryan has some experience, so he’s very helpful,” Wilson added. “His feedback is good now that we have current cars, good engines. More people working on it. We’re able to put up more of a fight at the race track.”
Cole Custer won Friday night’s Xfinity Series race at Richmond Raceway, claiming his second win of the season.
Custer, who led 122 of 250 laps, passed Austin Cindric for the lead with 20 laps to go and went unchallenged.
The Stewart-Haas Racing driver also won the $100,000 Dash 4 Cash bonus with the victory.
The win is Custer’s fourth in Xfinity and his first on a short track.
The race managed to go its scheduled distance despite the threat of rain looming over the track for most of the night.
“It was so frustrating, they kept telling me, ’20 laps away’ and it never came,” Custer told Fox Sports 1. “We had a really great car. They made great adjustments, that’s a win. … This one means a lot. We haven’t had a short-track win yet. We’ve struggled a lot on short tracks and this helps, this definitely means a lot. My friends give me a lot of crap for being bad at this place, and I finally won. So I have a little bragging rights there. That’s nice.”
As for his rain predictions, crew chief Mike Shiplett joked, “Everytime I told him it was going to rain he drove faster.”
NOTABLE: Ryan Sieg’s top five is his fifth in 177 career Xfinity starts and his second on a non-restrictor plate track. He has not finished worse than 12th through eight races .. Zane Smith finished sixth for his first career top 10 in his third Xfinity start … Elliott Sadler placed 12th in his first start of the year for Kaulig Racing.
WHAT’s NEXT: Sparks Energy 300 at Talladega Superspeedway at 1 p.m. ET on April 27 on Fox Sports 1
Long: How rules package, hard tire played key role in Denny Hamlin’s win
FORT WORTH, Texas — Any other year, Denny Hamlin likely doesn’t win. But a new rules package, combined with key strategy calls and a tire that didn’t fall off much, allowed Hamlin to rally from two pit road penalties to win Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway.
No driver had come back from two pit road penalties in the same race to win since Brad Keselowski did it in October 2014 at Talladega. But that was restrictor-plate racing, and Keselowski’s penalties came during the same caution period a third of the way through that race.
Hamlin faced a much different situation at Texas.
The first half of Hamlin’s race was a mess. He missed pit road on Lap 63 and was speeding on pit road when he made it there on Lap 64.
“I was just beating my head against the steering wheel thinking, ‘Man, we’re going to finish bad with a really fast car,’“ Hamlin said.
An uncontrolled tire on Lap 173 of the 334-lap race sent Hamlin to the back.
“It was a very rough day,” crew chief Chris Gabehart said.
Gabehart could do so because of the rules and the tire.
The new rules package is intended to keep the field closer together. That creates more opportunities to pass. Previously, the fields at Texas Motor Speedway would spread out, making it harder to gain ground a few laps after a restart.
Gabehart said that this was not a track position race because how cars could move through the field. Just as important was that the tires did not have a significant drop off in time during the course of a run. Had these been tires that wore, Gabehart would not have been able to call for no-tire stops. He would have had to change four tires each stop and Hamlin would not have been able to leapfrog some cars through strategy.
A no-tire stop put Hamlin in the lead on Lap 156, and he won the second stage, which ended at Lap 170. Hamlin came down pit road during that caution for four tires. He was penalized for the uncontrolled tire during that stop, dropping him outside the top 15.
Gabehart called for a no-tire stop a second time during caution on Lap 256. Hamlin restarted sixth behind three cars that did not pit and two others that also did not take tires.
“For our scenario each time, it just made the most sense,” Gabehart said of the no-tire calls.
Hamlin took the lead on Lap 303 from teammate Erik Jones when Jones pitted for two tires and fuel. Hamlin relinquished the lead on Lap 319 for enough fuel to make it to the end. When the field cycled through, Hamlin was back in front because of how little time he had spent on pit road.
“This is a complete different style of racing than what I used to do in the past,” Hamlin said. “I have to adapt. Seems like I’m adapting quickly.”
As is Gabehart.
Rarely do you hear NASCAR officials so candid and raw as Steve O’Donnell was Monday on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.
The topic was group qualifying and the issues that have pervaded the sport the past month.
Asked if he was angered by the controversy, O’Donnell said: “I think it’s ridiculous, candidly. I know the drivers did not like this qualifying before the season. Part of you says, ‘Are (they) doing this on purpose to get rid of it?’ “
O’Donnell’s comments were part of an offensive that series officials have gone on since Auto Club Speedway last month when all 12 cars failed to complete a lap before time expired in the final round.
Driver complaints about the qualifying have been constant since.
NASCAR President Steve Phelps appeared on “The Dale Jr. Download” (5:30 – 6:30 p.m. ET Tuesday on NBCSN) and was vocal about what has happened in qualifying.
“That was unacceptable if I was a race fan and unacceptable if I was at the race track,” Phelps said of this past weekend.
Scott Miller, senior vice president of competition, expressed his displeasure with what happened March 15 at Auto Club Speedway, saying the actions of drivers made “a mockery” of qualifying. Miller also said of the drivers not completing a lap in time: “It surprised me that they weren’t smart enough to go out.”
Last weekend at Texas, Jay Fabian, Cup series director, also raised questions about the drivers’ actions, saying: “Some of it is a little confusing because they say they don’t want to go out first … but (Daniel Suarez) went out by himself and transferred twice by himself. They say you got to follow somebody, but they chose to not follow him. I don’t understand why they didn’t.”
Since Auto Club Speedway, various NASCAR officials have used the term “mockery,” “ridiculous,” and “unacceptable” in discussing qualifying, and O’Donnell even said it makes one wonder if the drivers are doing this on purpose to get rid of the format.
Strong words but the time will come for action. The draft won’t be a factor in qualifying until Kansas next month (Talladega already has single-car qualifying) so NASCAR has some time to address the matter. The question is how strong will NASCAR’s response be?
The driver who might have had the most reason to be upset with NASCAR moving the championship race from Miami to ISM Raceway in 2020 would be Kyle Larson, but he wasn’t.
Miami is one of Larson’s best tracks and had he qualified for the championship race, he likely would have been the favorite regardless of who the other contenders were.
“Even though Homestead has been a track where I can lead a bunch of laps and also challenge for the win, I’ve always felt like it needs to go somewhere else,” Larson said. “I would like to see it go … to a different track every year.”
Kyle Busch has one more race left this season in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series. Busch, who has won his first four starts this season, is limited to five races in that series because of his Cup experience.
Busch’s remaining race is next month’s event at Charlotte. It will mark the earliest his Truck season has ended. Part of the reason he races in the Truck series is to help improve his equipment at Kyle Busch Motorsports for his other drivers. With being done so early in the season, how will that impact the organization’s performance the rest of the year?
“For us, we aren’t a Cup team and so we move a lot slower than the Cup teams do,” Busch said. “You all talked about how when everybody got done with the West Coast swing, the first time people would have updates to their cars would be Texas. I don’t think we would see an update to our stuff for two months. It just takes a bit longer to kind of get all that instilled into our stuff.
“If you look at me running the front side of the season and running as much as I do right now, we’ve been building some notes, and we’ve been building some things that we can work on and get better and do a little bit differently, so when we get to say July, August – that’s when you’ll start seeing some stuff coming out.
“That will be the brunt of the season, kind of closing in for the playoffs and then the playoff push. I’d like to run more or maybe I’d like to run a little bit later, but I just don’t know that the races fall, especially with me – like going to Iowa, I’ve never been to Iowa. Gateway, those places, I don’t need to go to those places, so it doesn’t make any sense for me to go to those places.”
Tyler Ankrum was excited after his sixth-place finish in Friday night’s Truck race. It was just the fourth career start in the series for the 18-year-old. That tied his career-high finish. He also placed sixth at ISM Raceway but Friday’s run was special because it was his first race on a 1.5-mile speedway.
“It’s kind of still surreal,” Ankrum said after the race. “I”m racing against (Matt) Crafton, Kyle Busch and (Johnny) Sauter. It’s crazy. I even passed Sauter on the outside! I don’t think you realize how important that is for me. I had a ton of fun and can’t wait to come back.”
He wasn’t the only driver who had a memorable weekend. Saturday’s Xfinity race saw Jeb Burton finish fifth in his first start of the season for JR Motorsports (Burton is back in the car next month in Charlotte).
As Burton talked about his finish to Performance Racing Network, he got emotional.
Other notable finishes from the weekend: William Byron‘s sixth-place finish matched his career-best result in Cup. Ryan Sieg won his first stage in the Xfinity Series on Saturday. Ronnie Bassett Jr. finished 15th in the Xfinity race, the second-career start for the 23-year-old.
Kaz Grala ‘starting from scratch’ in Xfinity season debut
Six weeks after the rest of the NASCAR world got the 2019 season underway, Grala will join them this weekend in his first Xfinity Series start of year.
Thanks to sponsorship from Hot Scream – a brand of spicy ice cream – the 20-year-old will make the first of selected starts this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway driving Richard Childress Racing’s No. 21 Chevrolet.
It’s a far cry from where Grala found himself in November. When the Xfinity season ended in Miami, Grala made the last of 12 starts for Fury Race Cars, a team owned by his family that didn’t exist before May. After he lost his ride at JGL Racing due to a lack of sponsorship, Fury Race Cars came together in the three weeks between races.
Now he’s “starting from scratch” in the best ride of his career.
“I feel as prepared as I possibly can be,” Grala told NBC Sports. “It’s hard driving part-time as I know from last year and competing against teams and drivers that are out here every single week and have been now for the past five races. They’re already warmed up there in the swing of things, they’ve got chemistry together. … That’s going to be a challenge.”
While he’s five races and 1,371 miles behind everyone else, Grala hasn’t been sitting on the couch waiting for today to arrive.
Though there has been sitting involved.
For the first time in his career Grala has access to a manufacturer simulator, plus RCR’s own simulator.
“Everyone had me a little bit concerned because they say you can get motion sickness from it. Luckily, no problems there for me,” Grala said. “We got to spend five hours in there. It felt to me like a five-hour test. Now the question’s going to be taking those things that we learned on the simulator and applying them in real life.”
Grala’s start will be the first for the No. 21 car this season, but it won’t be the first for the crew manning it. Headed by crew chief Justin Alexander, it’s the same crew that was behind Tyler Reddick‘s Daytona 500 entry in the No. 31 Cup car.
Grala shadowed the team during the Daytona weekend and other races in preparation for Texas.
“My engineer is extremely knowledgable and Justin of course, his experience speaks for himself,” Grala said of Alexander, who has 125 starts in Cup as a crew chief including wins in the Daytona 500 and the Coca-Cola 600. “His kind of range of knowledge about these cars and the way they work is even broader than just the Xfinity Series. He’s a really, really smart guy. I’m excited to see him work with me in real life at the race track rather than just in front of a screen.”
“I’m going to be having to figure out how to work with this team, but at least I kind of have a baseline for how to race these cars,” Grala said. “I think that’s been huge for me, but also just the difficulty of racing and competing for the finishes that we were last year with Fury. I’m back there racing with guys like Chastain, Ryan Sieg. These guys are some of the most underrated but best drivers in the series. …
“I feel like that helps make you a stronger driver. I think that we’ve seen that in the past with Ryan Preece and Ross himself. That really helps you gain a lot of race craft as a driver.”
When he hits the track today, he’ll have one token on his car representing his challenging rookie season. A Fury Race Cars logo will be located on his rear quarter panel to help promote their late model and modified manufacturing.
“This is kind of what they were hoping for, to be able to help me out in a pinch last year and have it work out to where I could end up with a bigger and better opportunity in the future,” Grala said. “This was an absolute perfect scenario for all involved.”
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.
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.”