DARLINGTON, S.C.—Once the NASCAR Cup Playoff grid is decided, the initial debate usually surrounds which drivers will advance to the Championship 4 Round.
That discussion is often followed by which drivers will be the first to be eliminated.
Usually, the final contender to advance would be the first driver out. Tyler Reddick has proven time and again why it would be foolish to underestimate him.
Certainly, when Reddick campaigned in the Xfinity Series and battled to the final four, he was never the favorite. Despite racing for JR Motorsports in 2018 with the same team and the same crew chief (Dave Elenz) who led William Byron to the NXS title the year before, Reddick was overshadowed by Christopher Bell—and with good reason.
Bell had won his seventh race of the season the week before at Phoenix and had the power of Joe Gibbs Racing behind him. He entered Homestead-Miami Speedway believing he didn’t have to win the race to win the title.
Reddick, then 22, won the first race of the season at Daytona and the finale at HMS and won both the NXS championship and rookie-of-the-year. Despite Reddick’s success, he was released from JRM.
The dismissal served as a wake-up call for the young racer, who found a home with Richard Childress Racing. More important, perhaps, Reddick found a friend and an advocate in crew chief Randall Burnett, a fellow dirt-tracker who spoke his driver’s language. He was paired with spotter Derek Kneeland, a short-track racer himself.
With the support of RCR, Burnett and Kneeland, Reddick distinguished himself as one of the Big 3 in the Xfinity Series. Over the course of the 2019 season, he exchanged blows with Bell and Cole Custer all the way to Homestead. The trio accounted for 21 of the 33 race wins that season. Perennial NXS contender Justin Allgaier, Reddick’s former JRM teammate, rounded out the final four.
Against powerhouses such as JGR, JRM and Stewart-Haas Racing, Reddick would have appeared at a disadvantage. But he made a statement by winning the pole, then led a race-high 84 laps for back-to-back Homestead wins and NXS titles.
Fast forward to 2021. In his second season in the NASCAR Cup Series, Reddick’s record has been less than remarkable. Clearly, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the dynamic of racing—especially with the elimination of practice and qualifying. The lack of those two integral components to the traditional weekend’s activities has presented a challenge to teams, but particularly to newcomers such as Reddick.
Still, he has shaved three positions from his average finish of 17.5 from last year. Through 26 races, Reddick has scored 13 top-10 finishes, four more than after 36 races in 2020. And in one of the few opportunities to race for a pole in 2021, Reddick topped the speed chart at Circuit of the Americas in May.
Perhaps the most significant improvement over Reddick’s rookie season was qualifying for the Playoffs when his veteran teammate Austin Dillon did not. Ten races into the schedule, Reddick was mired at 22nd in the points. Last weekend at Daytona, Reddick’s persistence paid off. He survived wrecks and nursed a wrecked car to a fifth-place finish. Reddick enters Darlington Raceway as the 15th seed and will start seventh in the Southern 500.
In May, Reddick led laps and earned stage points at Darlington before finishing 12th. For additional seat time, he raced the Xfinity Series on Saturday with Our Motorsports and finished seventh.
“The speed we had early at this race at Darlington in the beginning of summer, if you will, was really promising to know we were that good and still have missed the mark on where our car needed to be by that much,” Reddick said. “Yeah, I'm excited for sure going into that race. But even more excited, after all the chaos and everything kind of had passed at Daytona, we knew we were in.
“There's only, I think, 13 points (actually 12) between myself and sixth right now. I think we're going to see a lot of shake-up just right away in how tight everybody is, how it's going to spread out just in this first race at Darlington. We're going to try to take advantage of that.”
Compared with Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske, RCR has held its own among the mid-range organizations. In a year when even a former juggernaut such as Stewart-Haas Racing has struggled to be competitive, let alone win, just clinching a postseason spot should be viewed as an accomplishment for the No. 8 RCR team.
The lessons learned from overcoming adversity, such as the challenges at Daytona, will serve Reddick well in the Playoffs.
“To win races you need to be relevant all day long,” Reddick said. “The only places you can really pop in and steal wins is when fuel mileage has come into play in the past on superspeedways. To win those races, before you can win races, you need to score a lot of points and be running up front.
“For most of this year, especially once we got it rolling the way it needed to be, we were running inside the top 10 a lot, having shots, one pit stop or one decision here or there away from top 5s, which unfortunately haven't had a lot of those this year. But we've been right there. Little details will either make or break this Playoff run for us.”
Reddick has been solid on short tracks—and the first round features Darlington, Richmond and Bristol. He has an average finish 13.8 at Darlington. His best result at the 1.366-miler was seventh in his 2020 debut. Bristol is Reddick’s best venue of the three. He finished fourth in the night race last year and won an Xfinity race at the half-mile bullring.
“I like where we've been going,” Reddick added. “I still feel like we're still just improving, but we're right where we need to be for the right time at the start of this. Certainly don't feel like looking at how we've ran that we will be the first out. Again, it's not just a race against 15 other competitors, you're racing yourself.
“Now that we're in these Playoffs, certainly it will be a lot easier to allow the pressure to get to us. But I'm not going to lie, Saturday was one of the most pressure-packed nights of my life and I thought we handled it pretty well. Some may argue that I needed to just be out the back, let everything happen. I thought we handled that situation as well as we could. It makes us even more prepared and ready for this first round, the rounds after, if we can do our part and get there.”