By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
It wasn’t the greatest race result from Austin Hill, but he’ll end the regular season as the top guy of the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series.
Although Hill finished eighth in Thursday’s ToyotaCare 250 at Richmond Raceway, it was enough for the Hattori Racing Enterprises driver to earn an additional 15 playoff points by winning the regular season title by 42 points over Brett Moffitt.
“It definitely means a lot and that was our ultimate goal coming in here tonight,” said Hill, who led 65 of 250 laps. “After as good as we were in stage one leading those laps, we thought we were going to win stage one until tires got put on and we fell a few positions back. All in all, it was a really good effort from everyone at HRE. Scott (Zipadelli, crew chief) and all the guys, they worked really hard.”
Starting from the pole, Hill had the race in command with ease following Ben Rhodes unable to get going. However, the necessary pit stop halted a bid for the Stage 1 victory as he crossed the line third behind Grant Enfinger and stage winner Zane Smith.
Third would be the norm as that’s where he finished in a rather quiet second stage won by Rhodes. The only notable concern from his No. 16 United Rentals Toyota Tundra was fighting on the free side.
Despite this, it was good enough for Hill to lock up the regular season title, but the final stage was a different tale. That was a direct result of a rough final restart where his Tundra couldn’t match the pace from ThorSport Racing’s Enfinger, Rhodes and Matt Crafton and soon began falling down the top leader board.
As the laps wind down, Hill lost a lap to Enfinger and had to settle with a 14th top-10 in 16 races.
“We really thought a caution was going to come out, we wanted to leave a set (of tires) laying just in case a caution came out with 30 or 40 (laps) to go,” Hill on the last run. “It went green the rest of the way and all those guys pitted. Our Tundra, we just started fighting really free entry and really loose off on the long run. Then I was just kind of holding on at that point. I was praying for a caution. I think we still had a shot at it if the caution could have come out. If we had 20 or so laps to go, we could have had a shot at the win still.
“All in all, we did our job today getting the 15 bonus points and the regular season championship, which is really nice to have those bonus points, but kind of stings a little bit because we definitely felt that we had a better truck tonight than an eighth place finish.”
The Georgian racer will begin the playoffs as the third seed, trailing top seed Sheldon Creed by four points heading into Bristol Motor Speedway next Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET on FS1).
“Bristol is one of those animals that we haven’t really figured out yet. Last year we kind of struggled. We ran back half of the top-10 all night long. That’s kind of one of those unknown races for us that we’re going to go into and just try to get as many points as we can,” Hill on Bristol.
“We’ve been working really hard on our short track program and I think it kind of showed at Gateway. We didn’t start off great at Gateway, but we were really good at the end of the race and finished third. Here tonight, if we could have been on the same tire strategy as everybody else we could have definitely had a shot at the win and at least a top-three finish. It just goes to show how good our short track program is this year and hopefully we can keep it up.”
When it comes to Hill’s driving style, it won’t change because he’ll continue running aggressive and take any chances of gaining valuable spots that’ll put him in a better spot of winning races. More importantly, bring HRE its second championship and the first of his relatively young career.
“If you have to go three-wide on a restart then you go three-wide on a restart to try to gain position because clean air is huge in the Truck Series no matter if it’s a short track or a big track,” said Hill. “That’s just kind of my mindset is just being aggressive and just trying to stay up front each and every week and just having nice, solid points days and getting stage points and obviously stage wins are nice to have because then you get Playoff points. It’s just nice having those points.”