Austin Hill went back-to-back for the first time in his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series career with his first road course victory at Watkins Glen International (WGI) in the United Rentals 176. The driver of the No. 16 United Rentals Toyota Tundra dominated to lead 35 of the 61 laps completed in the weather-shortened event. His second-consecutive win came along with the Stage 2 victory en route to cap off the regular season. His eighth career win also earned him an additional eight playoff points by winning the race, earning his first stage win of 2021, and gained a position in the championship standings to finish second in the regular season point battle.
Hill was declared the winner of Saturday’s United Rentals 176 at the famed Watkins Glen International road course after lightning in the immediate area forced the field to stop on pit road 11 laps from the scheduled race finish.
Hill had taken a 1.023-second lead over John Hunter Nemehek before the trucks headed to pit road where they waited under red flag conditions for nearly an hour before the race was officially called.
The race marked the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series regular season finale, officially setting the 10-driver 2021 Playoff field. And while there were no impactful moves in the standings as far as Playoff eligibility, it certainly wasn’t for a lack of trying in the truck series’ first race at the 2.45-mile vintage road course in 21 years.
Hill, who had previously only led two laps in his career on road courses, led a race best 36 of the 61 laps in the No. 16 Hattori Racing Enterprises Toyota to take his second win of the season – and second straight after claiming the trophy in the previous race, July 9 on the Knoxville, Iowa dirt track.
“It was nerve-wracking that’s for sure, I didn’t know if we were going to go back to green or not,” said Hill, 27, of Winston, Ga. “It feels so good to win on a road course.
“I was really biting my nails a little bit when that rain came, I didn’t know what was going to happen with the lightning and all that,” he continued. “But they gave me a really great piece today and we were able to go out there and get it done. It’s really special to get a win at Watkins Glen.”
Nemechek’s runner-up effort was his series-best ninth top five. His five wins in the No. 4 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota are most in the series this season and a personal high mark for the 23-year old second-generation star who also receives a 15-point bonus for winning the regular season title.
The victory was especially big for Hill, moving him into second place in the standings, 18 points behind Nemechek to start the Playoff run. Another two-race winner Ben Rhodes, who finished 15th on Saturday, is ranked third.
The remainder of the 10-driver Playoff field includes Todd Gilliland, 2020 series champion Sheldon Creed, Zane Smith, three-time series champion Matt Crafton, first-time Playoff contenders, rookies Carson Hocevar and Chandler Smith and veteran Stewart Friesen.
Derek Kraus, the popular 19-year old Wisconsin driver, was officially eliminated from Playoff contention after spinning out with 19 laps remaining. Kraus had run in the Top-5 early in the race, placing third in Stage 1. He started the race ranked 11th – 40 points from the Playoff cutline line. But he and Tyler Ankrum, who started the race 12th in points, essentially needed a victory to secure that Playoff position. Ankrum finished seventh.
In many ways, Saturday’s race was a Playoff preview. Gilliland won Stage 1 and Hill took the Stage 2 victory, both fending off runs by fellow championship eligible drivers.
Creed, who boasts the series all-time best road course average finish (3.0), finished third. Gilliland was fourth and Parker Kligerman rounded out the Top-5 – his first top five showing of the season.
The first three-race round of the 2021 Playoffs begins Aug. 20 with the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Gateway 200 (9 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at World Wide Technology Park at Gateway. The following two races of the round are are at Darlington Raceway on Sept. 5 and then Bristol Motor Speedway on Sept. 16.
AUSTIN HILL, No. 16 United Rentals Toyota Tundra, Hattori Racing Enterprises
Finishing Position: 1st
What was it like watching and waiting for the lightning delay?
“It was nerve wracking, that’s for sure. I didn’t know if we were going to go back green or not, but it feels so good to win on a road course. I’ve been wanting to win on a road course for a really long time – even back in the K&N days, I felt like I would get around the road course fairly decent and finally we had a race that does everything we needed to do. I was really biting my nails there and then when that rain came and I didn’t know what was going to happen with the lightning and all that. Everybody at United Rentals and HRE (Hattori Racing Enterprises), they gave me a really good piece today and we were able to go out there and get it done. Really cool, really special to get a win at Watkins Glen. First time back in 20 years or so, it’s really special.”
Are you and your team a threat for the championship?
“Don’t count us out. We’re hungry and we’re ready. We have a lot of confidence so we’re ready to go for these Playoffs.”
How did the experience in yesterday’s ARCA race help you today?
“I think it definitely paid off a little bit. I think once you got five laps into the race, everybody was kind of equal because they kind of figured out where their truck was and figured out where their points were. That paid off a little bit just knowing that tire wear was going to be a factor and that tires were going to fall off a little bit. I tried to be mindful of that, but at the same time, once we played that pit strategy and we got to the lead, I wanted to keep the clean air and that was really big for me just trying to keep the clean air because I thought whoever had the lead was going to be hard to get around. We made the right adjustments, made the right call to pit road and just everything happened the way it did and it’s one of those races that you had to be good, but at the same time we had a little bit of luck on our side to get to the lead and when it’s going green, there’s no telling what can happen on a restart or something. It’s nice to have the rain come and us not have to go back out there.”
How much were you being made aware of the weather during the race?
“The only times that they came on the radio and said anything to me was right when we were going green for that last restart. My crew chief, Scott (Zipadelli) came over the radio and said there was weather in the area, don’t know how long it’s going to last. We could make it all the way or we could be cut short, we don’t know. Just get to the lead if you can and when you have that restart, get through the gears and everything right. Try to save your stuff, but at the same time go. Don’t hold back, don’t let guys get around you. I was trying to manage that the best I could. I saw the 4 (John Hunter Nemechek) was pushing really hard, he was driving in deep. I was just trying to save my stuff, but at the same time just keep that gap from him. I didn’t want him to get too close to me. We just played that cat and mouse game the right way.”
How did things translate at this track for your team with relation to simulation after a 20-year break since this series competed at Watkins Glen?
“I thought that it translated really well. I did a lot of sim work with TRD and I did a lot of stuff with Toyota and it seemed to help going into the weekend. Obviously, the ARCA race helped a lot. I think just preparation was really big for us. To win at a place like Watkins Glen and to do it with United Rentals sponsoring the weekend, I have United Rentals gear all over me and it’s really special to see that. I was really excited to see that happen. I can’t wait to get the phone calls and talk to some of the United Rentals reps and see what they thought of it. I thought it was cool.”
What is making this team so competitive in recent weeks?
“I think the biggest thing is coming off the Knoxville win, just gained a lot of confidence for us. We had that three week break so we were able to really prepare going into this weekend and to also get ready for the Playoffs. I thought the three week break was really good for us and I think that played a factor into how good we were and how prepared we were today. Actually we brought a whole brand new road course package than what we had been running this weekend and we didn’t really know what to expect with no practice. It paid off and we unloaded and were really good. Felt like we got a little tight there, but they made good calls on pit road to get us to the lead and then get that clean air and the adjustments that were made were really good.”
JOHN HUNTER NEMECHEK, No. 4 Mobil 1 Toyota Toyota Tundra, Kyle Busch Motorsports
Finishing Position: 2nd
Do you think you may have had something for Austin Hill in the final laps if the race was restarted?
“Possibly, it’s hard to say with the high downforce package that we have on these trucks, dirty air is really bad. You get super aero-tight behind other trucks and it kind of gives you a disadvantage being the second guy compared to being in clean air. Overall, we had a really fast Mobil 1 Toyota Tundra today. I feel like Austin (Hill) had the dominant truck all day. I do feel like we were better in certain spots, and he was better in other spots on the racetrack. Who knows what would have happened, he could have made a mistake, I could have made a mistake. It’s part of racing. I felt like if he would have slipped a little bit or if I could have gotten side-by-side with him, I feel like we probably could have made the pass and possibly drove off. I don’t know how fast, but I felt like we were playing cat and mouse with trading back who was faster on certain laps.”
What happened between you and Ben Rhodes on lap one?
“I wheel-hopped really bad getting into turn one and apologized to Ben (Rhodes). I’ve spoken to Ben and apologized to his team guys as well. That’s not how I want to race and that’s not my intention to take somebody out. I’m better than that and I should have never made that mistake, but wheel-hopped and I was just along for the ride at that point. We’ve raced hard against them all year and we’ve traded paint, but we’ve been respectful about all of it. It sucks that happened here at Watkins Glen.”
Is this your championship to lose or is it too soon to determine that?
“I feel like race tracks that are coming up are really good for us. I enjoy the race tracks we’re going to the first round and the second round. It all comes down to Phoenix. You have to make it there, be in the final four and whoever has the better race and plays the strategy right. Cautions may fall, we saw that last year as well. We’re on our ‘A’ Game I feel like, and we’ve been preparing fast trucks all year and we just have to keep the momentum rolling. Have to try to be that one that’s the favorite going into Phoenix.”
How does it change to now be the favorite versus the underdog?
“I feel like it changes your mindset a little bit. I feel like being the underdog, you’re trying to push your equipment further than is maybe possible or its potential. Now, I feel like we have really fast Toyota Tundras every time we show up to the racetrack and it’s my job not to make mistakes and it’s my job not to put ourselves in a bad situation that may take us out of the race. I do feel like we’re one of the favorites every time we show up. My mindset is to continue to work hard and head down, elbows up as I would say and continue to push. We’re going to work as hard as we possibly can and that definitely doesn’t change from being the underdog to now being the top guy, I guess. You put in the same amount of work if not more now to try to better yourself as a driver.”
Is it easy to learn to take what the equipment can give you versus trying to push past it?
“You can definitely fall into old habits, but at the same time being able to maximize the potential of the equipment that I was in as an underdog to now being in really fast trucks and maximizing that potential and possibly pushing it even more than what it may be capable of, I think that has taught me a lot. I definitely feel like that has helped me be a better driver, being in that underdog spot and now being in this spot, you know when you can run 95 percent and not have to push it to 100 or 120 percent. I feel like the mental adjustment, for myself personally, I’m having fun, I’m smiling, enjoying life and being able to come out here and have a shot to win every week when we show up to the racetrack feels good.”
What message did Kyle Busch send you for this season about chasing this championship?
“When Kyle (Busch, team owner) and I sat down at the end of last year, beginning of this year when this whole deal came together, we pretty much went into it and told me that I had to have a championship mindset. Don’t make mistakes, don’t make people mad and just go run your races and dominate races. I’m lucky enough that I’m the guy that Kyle believed in that could do that and put the experience there, like a Matt Crafton-type guy as he would say. It’s definitely been nice to kind of fill those shoes with Toyota and with Kyle as well within the organization. The last time KBM was a real threat for the championship was William Byron and Christopher Bell era so hopefully we can be on the list with those guys.”
1. (1) Austin Hill, Toyota, 61.
2. (6) John Hunter Nemechek, Toyota, 61.
3. (19) Sheldon Creed, Chevrolet, 61.
4. (2) Todd Gilliland, Ford, 61.
5. (38) Parker Kligerman, Chevrolet, 61.
6. (8) Zane Smith, Chevrolet, 61.
7. (10) Tyler Ankrum, Chevrolet, 61.
8. (39) Paul Menard, Toyota, 61.
9. (40) Sam Mayer(i), Chevrolet, 61.
10. (9) Carson Hocevar #, Chevrolet, 61.
11. (21) Josh Berry(i), Chevrolet, 61.
12. (23) Kaz Grala, Chevrolet, 61.
13. (15) Christian Eckes, Toyota, 61.
14. (22) Tanner Gray, Ford, 61.
15. (5) Ben Rhodes, Toyota, 61.
16. (20) Austin Wayne Self, Chevrolet, 61.
17. (12) Ryan Truex, Chevrolet, 61.
18. (16) Corey Heim, Toyota, 61.
19. (18) Hailie Deegan #, Ford, 61.
20. (17) Stewart Friesen, Toyota, 61.
21. (7) Derek Kraus, Toyota, 61.
22. (4) Matt Crafton, Toyota, 61.
23. (14) Johnny Sauter, Toyota, 61.
24. (36) Timmy Hill, Chevrolet, 61.
25. (27) Jack Wood, Chevrolet, 61.
26. (13) Tate Fogleman, Chevrolet, 61.
27. (25) AJ Allmendinger(i), Chevrolet, 61.
28. (11) Danny Bohn, Toyota, 61.
29. (35) Bobby Reuse, Chevrolet, 61.
30. (37) Roger Reuse, Ford, 60.
31. (33) Josh Reaume, Toyota, 60.
32. (24) Lawless Alan, Toyota, 60.
33. (34) Spencer Boyd, Chevrolet, 59.
34. (31) Chad Chastain, Chevrolet, 58.
35. (32) Taylor Gray, Ford, 53.
36. (28) Jennifer Jo Cobb, Ford, 45.
37. (26) Norm Benning, Chevrolet, Too Slow, 40.
38. (30) Grant Enfinger, Chevrolet, Transmission, 8.
39. (29) Will Rodgers(i), Chevrolet, Transmission, 6.
40. (3) Chandler Smith #, Toyota, 61.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 87.298 mph.
Time of Race: 1 Hrs, 42 Mins, 43 Secs. Margin of Victory: Under Caution Seconds.
Caution Flags: 5 for 10 laps.
Lead Changes: 7 among 6 drivers.
Lap Leaders: A. Hill 1-4;T. Gilliland 5-22;J. Wood 23;C. Hocevar # 24;Z. Smith 25-28;A. Hill 29-41;J. Nemechek 42-43;A. Hill 44-61.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): Austin Hill 3 times for 35 laps; Todd Gilliland 1 time for 18 laps; Zane Smith 1 time for 4 laps; John Hunter Nemechek 1 time for 2 laps; Carson Hocevar # 1 time for 1 lap; Jack Wood 1 time for 1 lap.
Stage #1 Top Ten: 38,2,19,25,22,23,66,52,99,40
Stage #2 Top Ten: 16,4,23,21,2,26,42,38,99,32