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Austin Hill’s been in the news a lot in 2019. It’s easy to understand why.
Call it ride-buying or call it bringing a better deal to the table for a team that desperately needs funding, but Hill landed an offseason promotion from the upstart Young’s Motorsports operation to Hattori Racing Enterprises, the defending Gander Outdoors Truck Series champion. The controversy surrounding that move went out the window, at least temporarily, when Hill scored a win in his debut ride in the No. 16 truck, prevailing in the season-opening crash-fest at Daytona International Speedway.
Move forward to June, and Hill’s been all over the ticker again. Following a racing incident with Johnny Sauter at Texas Motor Speedway, the two drivers found each other again the following week at Iowa Speedway, and that’s when all hell broke loose. Hill retaliated and wrecked Sauter’s truck, only to have Sauter hunt down and wreck Hill under yellow. Though both drivers were summoned to the hauler, Hill avoided further penalty while Sauter was suspended for the World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway race.
Most recently, Hill was back in the news again after irking Grant Enfinger in the ThorSport Racing camp at Chicagoland Speedway this past Friday (June 28). And though the cause of this spat, and the spat itself, reached nowhere near the level of what was seen in Iowa, the tension was still palpable.
— Dustin Long (@dustinlong) June 29, 2019
Judging from the reactions on social media after this latest Friday night episode, all this time in the headlines has not done Hill any favors, at least in the realm of public opinion (just take a gander at the reactions to Mr. Dustin Long’s tweet from Friday). Branded a ride-stealer, a rich kid and a punk, Hill is on the exact opposite side of a NASCAR fanbase currently enamored with new race winners Ross Chastain and Alex Bowman. Daytona really was a long time ago…
Now, to be fair, any driver essentially slapping Grant Enfinger was likely going to come out looking bad. For one, Enfinger is not Sauter, a driver whose history of run-ins with drivers across all ranks of NASCAR is nearly as long as the list of teams he’s driven for over the course of his career. Plus, as one of the more old-school drivers on the circuit today, one who toiled both as a driver and crew chief in the ARCA Menards Series ranks for years before landing a Truck Series ride, it certainly appeared that Enfinger was looking simply to acknowledge Hill and move on from their disagreement rather than pick a fight.
But given the reception Hill has been getting, both in recent weeks and over the course of the 2019 Truck Series campaign, it’s not hard to understand why he’d be frosty towards any driver taking issue with his performance on the racetrack, especially in the case of a late-race move that didn’t involve contact. Despite being the victim of a vehicular assault under yellow at Iowa, there was no shortage of fans out there calling for Hill to have also been suspended for his part in the fracas.
Despite having already won two poles and a race halfway through his first season driving for a top-tier Truck team, Hill’s still being routinely dismissed as being overrated or lacking in driver talent (again, take a gander at the reaction to Long’s posts from Friday night’s post race).
And despite, yes, being a driver who cashed in on his own financial ties to land a better ride, Hill has been all but demonized for engaging in a practice that countless drivers have engaged in across NASCAR’s national series in recent years. Current darling Chastain’s first step onto the NASCAR ladder came courtesy of family watermelon money. Across the garage in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, thanks to the never-ending backing of Pilot Travel Centers, Michael Annett earned a top-tier ride at JR Motorsports after an unremarkable run in a back-marker Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series car — only to spend years underachieving in said top-tier JRM car before scoring a win at Daytona to open 2019. Since that W, it’s been nothing but plaudits for Annett and his team, despite having come nowhere near sniffing victory lane since then.
But most importantly, for being a ride-buyer, Hill’s results on the track are not bad at all. 12 races through the 2019 campaign have produced more top 10s then former driver Brett Moffitt had in the same truck a season ago. He’s qualified better, both in terms of poles and on average. He’s led laps in more races. And though the Daytona race that Hill won was indeed a wreck-fest, there’s no objective way to argue that he didn’t deserve the win. Hill’s blocking and control at the front of the draft in February had plenty in the media center remarking that his win shouldn’t have been a surprise, but rather expected, given that he had a fast truck.
In the most modern of terms, at this point in the season a year ago, Moffitt had the No. 16 team locked into the playoffs and contending. At this point in the 2019 season, Hill has the No. 16 team locked into the playoffs and contending.
If only all the ride-buyers were so capable behind the wheel.