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Austin Hill Hungry for Truck Title & Respect, Getting Feet Wet in Xfinity

Austin Hill started last year with a lot of doubts and criticism after he replaced 2018 Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series champion Brett Moffitt at Hattori Racing Enterprises. At the time, Hill only had one top-five finish and eight top 10s in 51 career Truck races. Granted, all of those previous starts came with smaller teams such as Young’s Motorsports.

But Hill ended up being the breakout star of the 2019 Truck season. Racing in his second full-time season, the Winston, Ga., native won four races and finished fifth in the championship standings. He ended the season with a dominant win at Homestead-Miami Speedway, leading 56 of 134 laps and winning all three stages.

However, just like at the start of the season, controversy seemed to follow Hill throughout 2019. He had dustups with series veterans Johnny Sauter and Grant Enfinger. The rivalry with Sauter culminated in Hill wrecking the 2016 Truck champion at Iowa Speedway and Sauter getting suspended after intentionally wrecking Hill under the caution flag.

Hill and Crew Chief Scott Zipadelli returned to HRE for the 2020 season, leading them to be one of the championship favorites in year two together. But this season, Hill and Hattori are getting more involved in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Last year, Hill and Hattori failed to qualify for the July NXS race at Daytona International Speedway before teaming up with MBM Motorsports to finish ninth at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

This year, Hill has already raced at Daytona and Auto Club Speedway in the HRE/MBM joint effort with even more races planned the rest of the season. HRE told Frontstretch the team’s plans aren’t set in stone, but their next targeted NXS race is Texas Motor Speedway.

Hill caught up with Frontstretch to discuss his breakout season and controversies, establishing how he would like to be raced, patching things up with rivals, his love for the outdoors, why he stayed at HRE and what he has left to improve. 

Michael Massie, Frontstretch: How much more confidence are you coming into this season given how good of a year you had last year?

Austin Hill: Last year, coming into the season, I had confidence. I’ve always had a lot of confidence in myself and what I can do in really good equipment. This year, the confidence is even higher. And having such a good group of guys as Scott Zipadelli and all the guys back at the shop, it’s big to have a team like these guys backing me. They really put a lot of faith in me. It’s awesome to be able to lean on those guys. If I had any questions throughout the season last year, I asked them, and they didn’t dog me about it. They answered the questions as best as they could. And if I had any other questions outside of that, then I would talk to guys at Toyota, TRD, guys like that. I asked a lot of questions last year. So going into 2020, I have a lot of confidence. I’m excited to see what happens throughout the season.

Massie: Last year, there was some criticism when you got the ride. Do you feel like you on-track performance has silenced any critics and won over fans?

Hill: Yeah, you’re always going to have people who don’t like you. Especially if they’re a fan of that other driver that got out of the ride and a new driver came into that ride, then there’s always going to be somebody hating on you. But we just go out here, and we try to really not listen to the outside noise. We do our own thing. If you see us at the racetrack, you see us chasing a stopwatch. We’re not really chasing anything but what the trucks doing, we want it driving good. We don’t really listen to what everybody else is saying. We just kind of do our own thing. And I think that’s one of the reasons we’re so successful and this organizations so good is we don’t get caught up in the moment of what other people are talking about.

Massie: You’ve proven yourself in Trucks, can we expect to see even more of you in Xfinity?

Hill: We have some idea of what we’re going to do on the schedule. It’s not all planned out yet. But hopefully, you’ll see us and the HRE bunch at a few races throughout the season. Our goal is to go out here and win a championship in the Truck Series. But if we can get out to some of these races on the Xfinity side and just get some experience there, it’ll be good for this organization and the whole team.

Massie: The Truck Series schedule is so much shorter than the other national touring series. What do you do with the free time?

Hill: I’m big into hunting and fishing, so whenever hunting season is around, I do a lot of hunting. [I’m] big into fishing, so during the week every now and then, if we’re not too busy, I’ll go out on the lake, do a little bit of fishing here and there in the evening. I enjoy it a lot.

Other than that, I have two daughters and a wife and family, so I spend a lot of time with them. We do a lot of things together. I just try to enjoy them growing up and getting bigger each and every day. I have a lot of fun being a dad. To see them grow and see them love what I do, it’s awesome to see smiles on their faces. It makes me that much more hungry to go out there and win races when they’re here cheering me on, because I want to see them in victory lane and get everybody to hold up No. 1 and do all that. So it’s a pretty special moment.

Massie: Some of the run-ins you had last year, how important was it for you to stand up for yourself and let the other guys know you’re not backing down?

Hill: Yeah, so when you go from running mid-pack and you get in really good equipment and start running up front, these guys don’t know who you are. They’ve never raced around you, I’ve never raced around them. And so you’re trying to learn each other. A lot of drivers, they try to see how far they can push you and intimidate you, and I think I proved last year that I wasn’t gonna be necessarily intimidated by anyone in the garage.

It’s just something that I had to stand my ground. I was tired of getting raced how I was raced. We’ve moved on from it though. Heck, honestly, me and some of the guys that we’ve had run-ins with, we talk and shake hands and everything’s all good. It was good in an essence to do that, but at the same time, looking back on it, there’s some things that you would always want to do differently. But all in all, I think it was good for that to maybe happen, move on from it.

Massie: You and Johnny Sauter talked and shook hands?

Hill: Yeah, I don’t know what race it was, I think it was the road course race in Canada, we just happened to be starting near each other, and we rode in the truck to do the parade lap around the track. We got to talking to each other, everything was cool. I think you saw throughout the season after everything that went down between us, we started racing each other better. We showed a lot more respect. We still raced each other hard, don’t get me wrong. I mean you’re still going to race each other hard, and every now and then you’re going to get into the guy and stuff like that. But we raced each other with a lot more respect, and that’s all I was asking for from everybody throughout the garage. So I think I earned that from Johnny, and I earned that from a lot of other guys that I race around nowadays.

Massie: Hattori seems to have found a gem in Scott Zipadelli. How have they managed to hang onto him?

Hill: Yeah, I’m sure that teams all the time are offering him stuff, and he probably looks at it, whatever. But I think he really believes in this organization. He really believes in Mike Greci [team general manager] and Shigeaki Hattori [team owner]. He’s really happy where he’s at. This whole organization, this whole team is really like a family. I feel like a lot of these other teams and organizations, it’s going to work, put your hours in and leave. This team’s not really like that. If somebody has a family emergency, if somebody has something that they need to do — heck, our truck chief, just the other week, messed his back up, and he went and got it fixed and stuff.

It’s a very family-oriented group. That’s one thing I love about this team. I could’ve went to a different team at the end of the 2019 season. I could have done some different things, doors opened for me, but I didn’t want to go anywhere else. This team is where I want to be. And hopefully, we can have a long relationship with these guys and do it for years and years to come.

Massie: After dominating at Homestead last year, how disappointed are you that you can’t go win a championship there now?

Hill: Yeah, so right after the race was over, during my interview, if anyone that saw the interview, you know I said it was pretty bittersweet to be in victory lane but not be holding the championship trophy. We had an issue at Martinsville [Speedway], got in a wreck. Then Phoenix [Raceway], we were a little off, and you just have those days. To be so close and then to go to Homestead and do what we did at Homestead, and for [the championship race] not to be back at Homestead and going to Phoenix now.

We just got to go to work, we got to figure out these short tracks. During the offseason, that’s one thing we touched on and talked about is that we really wanted to make our short track program better. You always want to make everything better each and every year. We feel like our mile-and-a-half program was at a really good spot at the end of the season last year, and we didn’t feel the same way about that on the short track side. We didn’t feel like we were getting the job done there. I’ve done a lot of homework on the short track side, [the team has] done a lot of homework. It’s not one particular person, and I’ll take a lot of responsibility if there’s anything I’m doing wrong. I’m going over film, I’m doing anything and everything I can to be a better short track racer. Coming through the rankings, running short tracks, I thought that I kind of had it figured out, but there are some things that I’ve learned through the offseason that I think are going to help me going into the 2020 season on the short tracks. We’ll see what happens. That’s really the number one thing that we want to get better at is our short track program though.

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