DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In a double-overtime epic that more resembled a demolition derby than a NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series race, Austin Hill outlasted the field to win Friday night’s NextEra Energy Resources 250 at Daytona Int’l Speedway.
Hill, in his first race driving for defending series champions Hattori Racing Enterprises, survived both a myriad of crashes and two late charges from ThorSport Racing teammates Grant Enfinger and Matt Crafton to secure the upset.
The overtime finish was set up by a multi-car accident on the backstretch with a lap and a half to go, when Gus Dean got a bump from behind by Sheldon Creed that got him out of shape. Dean tried to save the truck, but spun down the track and hooked then-leader Ben Rhodes, with calamity ensuing.
Somehow, Hill snuck through the chaos unscathed, inheriting the race lead and suddenly finding hope.
“Coming off turn two, I had a huge run on Ben. He left the door open down low and I went to go fill the hole, but right when I did he turned left and we made contact,” Hill recalled. “We were both able to gather it up and keep going, but I thought at that point our race was over.
“When I saw the 12 (Dean) get turned and got into the 99 (Rhodes), all the cars went up and I just committed to going low and praying that nobody touched me,” he added. “Somehow we made it through. I don’t know how.”
At that point, only 11 trucks were left running and most of the lead pack was precariously low on fuel, following what turned out to be the final round of pit stops that came with 40 laps remaining.
Hill wasn’t focused on any of that, however. He stayed focused forward out his windshield.
The green flag waved over the first overtime attempt six laps beyond the scheduled 100-lap distance, with Hill and two-time Truck Series champion Crafton on the front row battling it out.
The two remained side-by-side through the first set of corners, but as the field spilled out onto the backstretch, a crash between Bobby Gerhart and Austin Wayne Self drew a race-11th caution and forced one final restart to decide the night.
On that second overtime attempt, it appeared as though Hill’s luck out front might have run out, as Crafton and Enfinger linked up in the draft and powered up the outside to challenge for the victory.
However, Hill threw a huge block down the backstretch that split the two ThorSport Fords up and left Enfinger scrambling to slip down to the bottom behind Hill coming to the white flag.
From there, the leaders lined up single-file and Hill successfully defended his lead all the way home, crossing the finish line first by .278 of a second over Enfinger and keeping the champions on top.
Ross Chastain, Spencer Boyd and Crafton completed the top five, followed by Josh Reaume, Timothy Peters, Angela Ruch and Austin Wayne Self.
Those nine trucks were the only ones left running at the finish, setting a track record for fewest drivers to make it to the checkered flag. The previous record was 12, set in February of 2005.
Hattori Racing Enterprises now has three straight Truck Series wins, going back to ISM Raceway in November of last year. Hill was only focused on the most recent one in victory lane, however.
“This truck was fast. It really was,” said Hill. “I knew we had a truck that could compete. It got a little scarce there towards the end, though, with not many trucks left out there. I thought the 98 (Enfinger) was going to get me, because he had a big run, but we were able to protect it.
“I can’t believe my first win came at Daytona. It’s so surreal and I can’t wait to party with these guys.”
Friday night’s performance did indeed mark Hill’s first victory in 52 series starts since debuting in 2014. It was also a watershed moment for a driver who was simply grateful that his new team took a chance on him.
“I had a lot of people through the offseason asking if a lot of weight was on my shoulders, coming into a situation like this, but I embraced that. I felt like because they won the championship last year, they should at least have another shot at it this year,” Hill noted. “These guys have been awesome to me. I feel like I’ve known them for a whole lot longer than we actually have.
“I don’t know if there’s any way I can ever pay them back for believing in me and wanting me to drive for them … but if there is some way to say enough of a thank you, this is it, for sure.”
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