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When the 2019 season opened for the Gander Outdoors Truck Series at Daytona International Speedway in February, it marked a new beginning for Austin Hill and 2018 championship-winning team Hattori Racing Enterprises.
Hill was just a driver who had just a single full-time Truck Series season under his belt and a whopping eight career top 10s in his previous 51 career starts. Meanwhile, HRE had just won its first championship in a season where Brett Moffitt scored the organization’s first six victories.
Less than a month after their 2018 success together, HRE released Moffitt in favor of a driver bringing solid sponsorship. Team owner Shige Hattori cited “numerous challenges in getting to the racetrack each week” as the primary reason of the split, noting the sponsorship woes that threatened to keep the eventual championship-winning duo off of the race track last season.
Enter Hill, who brought with him sponsorship from United Rentals, who had backed the driver during his time at Young’s Motorsports. The NASCAR Next graduate made just 12 starts for Young’s in 2017, posting a single top-10 finish at Kentucky Speedway. By the end of that season, he had a rather underwhelming 17.8 average finish, but Hill returned to the organization for 2018 full-time. In 23 starts last season, he posted six top 10s, including a best finish of fifth, his lone top five, at Texas Motor Speedway in November.
That doesn’t exactly sound like the kind of success a championship-winning organization would want behind the wheel of its team, right? Maybe so, but if you consider that the other drivers who raced for Young’s throughout the 2018 season had a combined five top 10s — and that included starts by Cup drivers Austin and Ty Dillon, along with Bubba Wallace — suddenly Hill’s results look a little more impressive.
Frankly, I was a little unsure about the move by HRE when it was announced in January, but it made sense to put a driver who’s shown promise with a smaller organization and brings along the financial backing to keep the team on the track. And when it comes to the Truck Series, where sponsorship tends to be hard to come by, you can’t fault a team for going with a funded driver who’s already shown talent in lower series. (Hill had five K&N Pro Series East victories in 39 starts.)
The new pairing made its first start together at Daytona and Hill led a race-high 39 circuits in what was a chaotic race en route to his first career Truck Series victory.
“I never would have thought in a million years I’d win at Daytona,” an elated Hill said at the time. “We’ve had some success at Daytona before, but just didn’t have the finishes we were looking for there at the end. We’d have something happen, and to be able to come on board with Hattori Racing and start off the season like this, I think there’s going to be a lot of good things to come for us.”
At the time, no one really knew exactly how true that last statement would be.
Many were skeptical, almost going as far as criticizing Hill’s opportunity with HRE because he “bought” his ride. In fact, my colleague Tom Bowles stated: “there’s no way Hill earns his opportunity without bringing more money than defending champion Moffitt” at the time.
It was a statement to which Hill took offense and responded to with a now-deleted tweet.
“This is too funny. I’ve worked my ass off to get to where I’m at,” the tweet read. “Any driver coming through the rankings brings sponsorship money to the table. No one makes it off of raw talent anymore. It’s been this way for a very long time. I’m humble bc I’ve worked for it.”
Frankly, he wasn’t wrong either, and I’m not sure why that tweet was deleted unless he had second thoughts about the perceived tone of it.
The rest of the regular season wasn’t all that spectacular for Hill. In fact, he suffered five DNFs, all but one of which were mechanical, between the regular season opener and finale. Of course, that makes his average finish of 12.8 this season a bit deceptive. Without those DNFs, Hill’s worst result this season came as a 16th at Martinsville Speedway. Perhaps the biggest thing during that time frame came when Hill and Johnny Sauter tangled at Iowa Speedway, resulting in a one-race suspension for Sauter.
Closing out the regular season, Hill headed into Michigan International Speedway with finishes of 31st, 30th and 32nd, lacking the right kind of momentum to head into the playoffs . The answer for the No. 16 team? A trip to victory lane after Hill recovered from a speeding penalty, led a race-high 26 laps and held the top spot during an overtime finish.
“When we came into this race, we wanted to win this one because we’ve been in a slump,” Hill said after the win. “We’ve been having issues, just stuff happening at the race track. So we’ve had a rough go at it. It feels really good to get the monkey off our back. Going into Bristol, we’re going to have a ton of confidence and motivation.”
Talk about a positive swing in momentum at the right time, just ahead of opening the playoffs. Though he was ninth in the regular-season points standings, two wins seeded Hill fourth to open the championship battle.
While Moffitt stomped the field with a pair of dominant performances at Bristol Motor Speedway and Canadian Tire Motorsports Park, with his third and fourth wins of 2019, Hill quietly finished 10th and fifth, respectively, though he led just a single lap in those two races.
Fast forward to Indianapolis Motor Speedway earlier this month while the Truck Series was off, and Hill made his Xfinity Series debut after failing to qualify for the Xfinity race at Daytona in July. By the time the checkered flag flew, Hill walked away with a ninth-place finish.
“Anytime you can get into a car and make laps and then come home with a top-10 finish, it makes your confidence that much higher,” Hill told Frontstretch after the finish. “I’m really excited to get to Las Vegas. We have a really good shot of winning there. Hopefully, we can go out there and get all the stage points and come home with a victory. Then we’ll move onto the Round of 6.”
And that boost of confidence was exactly what Hill needed to score what he called “a big statement win” at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last Friday night. Restarting in 20th after a four-tire pit stop under the final caution with 48 laps to go, Hill raced his way through the field and drove past dominant driver Ross Chastain to a more than two-second victory, his third trip to victory lane this season.
Sure, the fresh tires made a huge difference for the No. 16 team, but there are two things to consider about that one. First, every single team had the same opportunity to give their drivers new tires for the final run that ended up staying green through the finish. Second, Hill didn’t just show up at the end thanks to the new tires. He led six different times throughout that race for 29 laps.
“This is the hardest one I’ve had to win,” Hill explained. “We were going to stay out that last caution and we stayed out and everybody else pitted. We decided we needed to pit or we were going to be screwed. We came down pit road, restarted at the tail end of the longest line and it stayed green.
“To be able to come from where we were and drive all the way through the field under green flag conditions and take the lead and drive away from them like we did, it just shows this is a huge statement win,” Hill continued. “It’s even more of a statement win because we had a little bit of an issue during practice and lost our truck chief. I know he was up watching us in the stands, but this is so special.”
After taking nearly a month off, the Truck Series will kick off its Round of 6 at Talladega Superspeedway Saturday, Oct. 12. Thanks to his third victory this season, Hill enters this round of the playoffs seeded second to Moffitt, who holds a 17-point advantage. The No. 16 team can’t let its guard down though, as Hill only has a six-point margin over Matt Crafton, who currently sits fifth.
And with drastically different types of tracks in Talladega, Martinsville Speedway and ISM Raceway (Phoenix) looming, one slip by any of the six remaining playoff drivers can turn into a make-or-break moment for their championship hopes.
Just in case anyone’s forgotten, Hattori Racing Enterprises is a championship-winning organization, even if the driver it won the 2018 title with isn’t with the team anymore. And Hill has made it very clear this year — more than ever before — that he’s a talented driver who really needed the right ride to show it. If you remove the earlier DNFs for mechanical issues only (keeping the crash at Eldora in the mix), Hill’s average finish suddenly jumps from 12.8 to 8.4.
The recipe for success? Maturity behind the wheel.
“I think if you look at what he did in Michigan as far as his race-craft, and then we executed very well at Toronto,” crew chief Scott Zipadelli said about Hill after the Las Vegas win. “Then how we showed up here today, we’ve been working very hard on simulator stuff and communications and watching videos and studying the sport itself. Michigan was a big boost for his confidence, and I think it speaks for itself.
“I think he’s very underrated and was at the beginning of the year. Nobody really knew how we were all going to work together or how he was going to slide into this team and what the performance was going to be like. I think if you look at the results, it’s pretty clear that the kid can drive a race car and he’s got a big heart. He’s a great, great individual and great father, great husband — very nice people to be around. We’re glad to have him here as a part of HRE.”
For Hill’s part, being welcomed with open arms has contributed to a smooth transition and a successful season to this point.
“Really from the time I came over to HRE, they’ve just treated me like family,” Hill explained. “It’s a really family-oriented race team. It’s awesome. They weren’t mad or anything about the change. They had all the faith in the world in me. Mike Grecci, Shige (Hattori), Scott (Zipadelli), everyone had all the faith in the world going into this season.
“We’ve had some ups and downs. We’ve had a little bit of a roller-coaster season so far with malfunctions and stuff that’s happened. We’ve shown speed, especially at these mile-and-a-half race tracks, we’ve shown a lot of speed. The finishes might not have always been there, but we’ve had the speed. We’re clicking at the right time.”
Say what you will about the driver, but HRE has proven it’s a championship-contending organization with two different drivers in two years, and calling Hill a “buy-a-ride” driver doesn’t change that at all. In fact, though Hill may have brought sponsorship with him, making him a team’s dream driver, he and the team wouldn’t be in this position if it weren’t for the talent behind the wheel. And if you’d been paying attention to his runs with Young’s Motorsports during the 2018 season, you’d see that his performance was on the upswing, despite the perceived lower budget for the team.
With four races remaining to crown this year’s champion, there’s plenty that can happen between now and the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But if you haven’t started seriously considering Hill and the No. 16 team as realistic Championship 4 participants, that time is now.