Since 2016, one of the most intriguing parts of each NASCAR Xfinity Series season has been watching to see if a midfield driver and team will make the playoffs.
Every season since NXS started having playoffs, the postseason has included at least one midfield driver and team make it in. Two midfield drivers made the inaugural playoffs in 2016: Blake Koch, driving for Kaulig Racing in its debut season, and Ryan Sieg.
More than any other midfielder, Sieg has made the Xfinity playoffs three times: 2016, 2019 and 2020. After eight races in 2022, Sieg sits eighth in overall points, the highest position after eight races in his career. He has accumulated 227 points, the second-most points Sieg has accrued through eight races in his career (253, 2019).
The biggest obstacle for a midfield team’s playoff hopes is reaching victory lane. The separation from the 15th-place team in Xfinity to the first-place team is wide. Sieg has come close to stepping into the winner’s circle before, most recently at Atlanta Motor Speedway last month, where he was leading at the white flag but finished 10th. His best career finish is second, scoring two runner-up finishes in his career, at Iowa Speedway in 2017 and Talladega Superspeedway in 2020.
After Martinsville Speedway, five Xfinity regulars have won and claimed a provisional ticket to the playoffs. Ty Gibbs leads all drivers with three wins, with Austin Hill, Noah Gragson, AJ Allmendinger and most recently Brandon Jones each with one win apiece.
I say provisional ticket to the playoffs because if 13 or more Xfinity regulars win a race before the season’s 26th race at Bristol Motor Speedway in September, someone’s win isn’t going to mean squat. There are still seven front-running drivers and teams who haven’t won in 2022 that can all still do so. That puts Sieg in a precarious situation.
Historically, a midfield team’s best opportunity to win is at superspeedways or in late-race pit scenarios where they have saved a fresh set of tires for a dash to the finish. If Sieg is to win, it will likely come at one of those types of races.
But what are the chances that in the next 18 races that the seven remaining front-running drivers all win? That depends on who you ask, but the chances are decent. But what can be said is that if Gibbs continues his blistering race pace, the opportunities for those seven to win are meager, which plays right into the hands of Sieg.
Last month, at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Sieg and Gibbs did not depart Sin City on the best of terms. Sieg felt Gibbs needed lessons on driving etiquette after the 19-year-old didn’t cut him a break so early in the race, driving a superior car. Now three wins and five races later, Gibbs is Sieg’s best friend.
Welp … Ryan Sieg vs. Ty Gibbs in Vegas continues pic.twitter.com/utb0iZWNX9— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) March 5, 2022
Sieg’s best opportunity to make the 2022 Xfinity playoffs is not only to continue producing top-10 performances and to capitalize when top teams have bad days, but also for Gibbs winning races. You’re probably asking yourself why Sieg needs Gibbs to win. It’s pretty simple; the more races Gibbs wins, the fewer others have a chance to win and lock up a potential playoff spot. Additionally, the more Gibbs wins, the likelihood of more drivers earning their way into the playoffs on points increases too.
Let’s look back at Friday night’s (April 8) Call 811 Before You Dig 250 at Martinsville Speedway from a 20,000-foot view. The race had a total of 16 cautions. Of those, five took place in the final scheduled 30 laps. Sieg was slowly moving forward with around 30 laps to go but was still only in the top 15. Sieg earned a third-place finish in stage 2, notching eight additional points. With 30 laps to go, Gibbs was leading the race.
If the race had stayed green the final 30 laps, Sieg might have notched a few more positions on the racetrack. Maybe he even gets a top 10, because his car was handling well. But let’s say he remained in 15th.
Finishing 15th would have earned Sieg 22 points, plus his eight stage points, giving him a total of 30 points. With several late-race cautions, Sieg ultimately finished ninth, earning 28 points, plus his eight stage points for a total of 36 points.
Put yourself in Sieg’s shoes. Would you rather finish 15th, taking home 30 points while Gibbs wins, or finish ninth, taking home 36 points while a new Xfinity regular wins and takes a playoff spot? Sieg and his team can’t control every little aspect of the race – this isn’t a video game. If they could, they’d choose to win every single race just as any race team would. They can’t, but they can certainly have a preference to what outcome happens.
For a race team that doesn’t have the outright speed and resources to compete with Joe Gibbs Racing, JR Motorsports and Kaulig Racing straight up, maybe it would have been best if the race remained green, resulting in a fourth Gibbs victory through eight races.
It’s in no way an easy decision to look at the two options and pick finishing 15th and Gibbs winning or finishing ninth and a new Xfinity regular wins. On paper, the best decision is to take the six additional points because, as every television broadcast drills into the viewer’s head, every point counts. Choosing to take the lesser of the points options seems silly. But remember the season-long reality of Sieg’s situation; the chances of him and RSS Racing winning the driver’s championship is slim.
More importantly, they don’t get the opportunity to fight for a championship unless they make the playoffs.
Sieg has already demonstrated through eight races in 2022 that he is the best of the midfield teams. Sieg and his No. 39 RSS Racing team have outperformed his fellow mid-packers, including Our Motorsports (Brett Moffitt, Anthony Alfredo and Jeb Burton), Jeremy Clements, Brandon Brown, Myatt Snider and the No. 48 of Big Machine Racing Team.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Sieg can point his way into the playoffs, nor do I discount him being above 12th in points when the regular season ends. But being in the top 12 in points does a driver no good if 12 drivers have won and they haven’t. That is why Gibbs has become Sieg’s best friend.
What a difference a week makes? Ryan Sieg sharing a laugh with Ty Gibbs prior to driver intros. They start together in Row 2. pic.twitter.com/uolU3eKRzl— Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) March 12, 2022
Gibbs has an immense amount of talent, and he has one of the best, if not the best, car in the garage. The more he wins, the fewer opportunities another front-running driver who hasn’t won can win, resulting in more drivers making the playoffs on points.
It’s that simple. While Sieg will fight for every win he can, he should be cheering for Gibbs to win when he can’t. It’s an odd predicament for a driver to find themselves in, but for Sieg, it’s practical.
So if I were in Sieg’s shoes and I could turn back the clock, I’d make it so I finished 15th and Gibbs won on Friday night at Martinsville, not Jones.
About the author
Josh Roller is a 2019 graduate of the Sports Capital Journalism Program at IUPUI in Indianapolis. While in school, he covered the 2018 Indianapolis 500 and the 2019 College Football Playoff National Championship. He was an extern for INDYCAR in 2019 and interned with Charlotte Motor Speedway's Communications Department in 2020. Besides writing the Xfinity Breakdown for Frontstretch, he also does a weekly podcast with a friend he met at the 2018 Indy 500, Rob Peeters, called the Racing with Rob and Roller podcast.