Ryan Sieg was 11 seconds behind the battle for the win in Saturday’s (Sept. 3) NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Darlington Raceway.
If he were sitting in the stands, there would have been no bigger cheerleader for Kyle Larson or Noah Gragson as the pair dueled with winless Sheldon Creed.
The finish to the Sports Clips Haircuts VFW Help A Hero 200 was one of the best finishes of the 2022 NASCAR season and one of the best ever at Darlington. Three different agendas and car speeds made the finish an edge-of-your-seat watch.
Larson worked methodically to reel in Creed and Gragson and took second place from Gragson when the pair were loose and touched ever so slightly off the exit of turn two with four laps to go.
Larson cut Creed a break by lifting with three laps to go when it was clear he may bump or wreck him. Creed was struggling off turn four, and Larson led with one lap to go, but the pair entered turn one side-by-side. Lots of contact was made, and Creed even smacked the outside wall.
Flat tires struck as Creed and Larson entered turn three, and Gragson hit the wall, but exiting turn four, Gragson passed Creed for the lead and won.
And RSS Racing let out a collective sigh of relief.
The previous eight races for Creed and Sieg have been vastly different compared to the first 16 races of the season. Gragson winning Saturday’s race allowed Sieg to relax, even if just for a minute, and kept his playoff hopes alive one week longer.
Sieg had a near-dream first 16 races of 2022 for a midfield team and arguably was in a separate midfield class of his own, scoring nine top 10s and one top five. Creed, however, only scored six top 10s and didn’t have even a single top five. Creed also had twice as many DNFs as Sieg, with six. In the most recent eight races, the fortunes of these two drivers have flipped dramatically.
Creed has surged in July and August, capturing four top 10s and three top fives, with only two finishes outside the top 12 since Road America. Sieg, however, has failed to finish better than 13th in the same timeframe. But the stat to zero in on is that Creed’s deficit to 12th place in the Xfinity Series standings has fallen from 98 points to 16.
Sixteen points separate Creed from making the Xfinity Series playoffs in 2022 and knocking Sieg out.
It would have been difficult to believe that a driver among the “Power 12” teams would miss the playoffs two months ago. As the weeks have passed, all Xfinity midfield teams have struggled, and they all need a win to advance. As the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs have taught us, a win solves all your issues, and Sieg and Creed both need a win to thwart any poor luck or the good fortunes of others.
Up next is Kansas Speedway, which is one of Sieg’s best tracks. With an average finish of 13.9, he has six top 10s, including five straight. In his 10 starts at Kansas, he either finished top 10 or outside the top 20. And while the number is low, his 44 laps led at Kansas leads all tracks Sieg has visited.
On the flip side, Bristol Motor Speedway, the cutoff race, is one of his worst tracks. Sieg has never scored a top five or top 10 at Bristol, finishing 10 of his 15 starts outside the top 15.
Creed has never made an Xfinity start at Kansas or Bristol, but in his Camping World Truck Series career at these two tracks, he’s been mediocre at best. He only has two top 10s and one top five at Kansas in five starts, with the other three finishes being 19th or worse. On concrete Bristol races, he has finishes of sixth, 11th and 19th.
Since the Fourth of July, Creed and the No. 2 Richard Childress Racing team have found something. The ingredients to this cocktail of speed they’ve found is big on Creed’s confidence, along with a dash of happiness.
During his post-race interview with NBC’s Marty Snider, Creed wasn’t upset or disappointed with the finish. He smiled at the end of the interview at his attempt to give them a “show.” In the media bullpen, Creed grinned and said he was “happy to have a fast racecar.” Mentioning that he felt the No. 2 team had been an eighth- to 15th-place car this season, the past eight races have shown that he and his team are capable of more than what’s reflected in the points.
Moreover, he wasn’t upset with Larson for the way the finish played out, even going as far as to say the pair laughed about it. Considering his mood following the race, Creed is in a great place. He’s confident but not cocky, and he has a “relieved” vibe that, finally, the car has speed and that they are running more and more where the team should have been running all season long.
Sieg’s issue on paper is based purely on equipment and not talent; Creed should be faster and collect more victories than him. With Creed getting hot now, Sieg needs his version of a perfect Kansas race. The No. 39 team will need a statement qualifying run, stage points and a top-10 finish. His competition climbed out of his car after losing a race in the final half-mile and smiled. There is almost no reason why another top 10 isn’t in Creed’s future.
Let’s not forget that had Jeremy Clements’ win not been encumbered, it would be Sieg in Creed’s shoes. Sieg only trails Landon Cassill by 18 points, and Cassill has a 34-point lead over Creed. But Cassill isn’t the one on the bubble — it’s Sieg, and Creed is cutting his point cushion down.
Barring a wild win by a driver lower in points than Creed, his performances the past month indicate he will overtake Sieg in points. It will be a must-watch battle on Saturday, Sept. 10, at Kansas and again at Bristol the following Friday.
If Sieg is to prevent Creed from surpassing him, he’ll need to find the magic he possessed in the first half of 2022. Otherwise, you might as well hand the 12th and final playoff spot to Creed.
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.
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