Austin Hill gets first win in first race with championship team
Daytona International Speedway is exciting not just because the weekend crescendos up to NASCAR’s biggest event of the year. The restricted engines roaring around the high banks on the 2.5-mile oval and the tight racing bring fans to their feet and trigger tight finishes and spectacular wrecks. This type of racing also crowns underdog, first-time winners and does so, again, for the biggest race in each of NASCAR’s top three series.
Enter 24-year-old Austin Hill. The Winston, GA driver took the reigns of the No. 16 Hattori Racing Enterprises Toyota from last year’s Gander Outdoor Truck Series championship winner Brett Moffitt, as the team needed the funds Hill brought. That move brings with it pressure, critics, and expectations.
Hill was at a crossroads just four years ago, he said, after scoring five wins in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and one in the West. Hill and his family started a part-time NGOTS team in 2016 that became a full-time endeavor with Young’s Motorsports in 2018. Those years netted a handful of top 10s and mid-pack average finishes, but no victories and really no shots at any. When HRE approached Hill about 2019, he said he didn’t know what his plans would be and he certainly has taken flack for being an unproven driver replacing the reigning champ in Moffitt.
But flukey Daytona didn’t crown a flukey winner. Though Friday night’s thrilling NextEra Energy 250 was a bloodbath - only nine trucks finished the double overtime event - the pack stayed tight. The twitchy trucks raced two-wide for most of the night’s 56 green flag laps (55 were run under yellow). And Hill led a race-high 39 laps (green and yellow), precisely blocking the high and low lines and keeping his competitors at bay. Hill started 10th and first assumed the lead on lap 62, ceding it twice to Ben Rhodes, and holding it for the last 12 laps.
Hill wasn’t just a proficient blocker. When Rhodes got turned by rookies Sheldon Creed and Gus Dean coming to the white flag, triggering an eight-truck melee, Hill dove low and barely missed it. His wife, Ashlyn, holding their five-month-old Kensley, paced nervously behind the pit fence, watching the ISM Vision big screen. The HRE pit crew erupted in cheers when Hill avoided the major wreck. But the race wasn’t over.
“Nervous is an understatement,” she said, adding she just wanted her husband to finish the race at that point.
Hill still had to survive two more restarts and a surge from runner-up Grant Enfinger, who had just gotten back on the lead lap after damage from a lap 55 wreck. Hill had gotten a little too far out front on the final restart, but spotter Mike Herman told Hill to crack the throttle and draw back just enough to both block Enfinger and his teammate Matt Crafton and catch their draft, without them passing him. Enfinger said he had to get out of the throttle when he had that run to avoid wrecking all of them. Herman guided Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to two Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victories in 2017: at Talladega in May and the July in Daytona.
And Hill had to save an immense amount of fuel, as the race went 11 laps longer than scheduled. In fact, it was the longest race in distance in NGOTS history. Hill’s crew chief Scott Zipadelli told him to keep up with the pace car, continue cutting off the engine, and assured him they would not be pitting. Zipadelli said after the race that he was fine taking that risk, because pitting would have put the No. 16 back in the pack and they probably would have wrecked. The front row was the safest spot.
Hill held a tight pack at bay for laps 110 and 111 to win his first race in any NASCAR national series. He’s now locked into the Truck Series playoffs, won an RV from Gander Outdoors (the new title sponsor of the series, after Camping World acquired the brand), got some bonus money, and simply can now race for wins.
But Hill said in his post-race press conference that his biggest memory of the night would be that his siblings, wife and children were all there for it. They didn’t attend very many races in recent years and did they ever pick a weekend to come.
Smithley and JD Motorsports together again, racing with heavy hearts
Garrett Smithley’s genesis in NASCAR was supposed to be a cup of coffee with hopes of a big sponsor showing up and keeping him in the game. The Peachtree City, Georgia 26-year-old suddenly is making his 100th start in the NASCAR Xfinity Series this weekend, driving a car that has become synonymous with him: the No. 0 Chevy for JD Motorsports. Smithley affectionately calls the effort “Number Nuthin’”- but his time in the car has taken plenty of effort.
Smithley often is cold-calling and finding his own sponsors to stitch together deals and funding to keep his team on the track and himself as the driver. This side of the garage often sees drivers with the most money win the spots. So Smithley’s early time in the car was in question at any moment. He has only missed one race with JD Motorsports, due to funding, since. And now he is back for another full season and not just because of the sponsorship.
“It started as a three-race deal,” Smithley said, while eating dinner with his family outside their RV in the Daytona Infield Friday. Smithley took the wheel from veteran driver Eric McClure after the 2016 Daytona season-opener. But team owner Johnny Davis told Smithley that McClure was supposed to return to the car at least for a race or two. That never came to be, as McClure was winding down his career and Smithley, meanwhile, was eeking out good enough finishes to keep his small team in the top 20 in points.
Smithley said the team got to midway in the ‘16 season and they were in the top 20 and Davis made the decision to keep him in the car. Smithley kept the car in the top 20 and team got an $85,000 bonus. Drivers in the middle of the pack have plenty of incentive to race hard for, say 17th-place. Each race pays bonuses to teams, based on their owners points. That is huge for teams so sparse on funding.
Small teams can score big at plate races like Daytona. Smithley’s only top 5 finish was 5th a year ago. Two of his other three top 10s have come at Daytona or Talladega. So their plan for the Flex Tape Chevy is to ride in the back, survive the carnage, and then drive to the front.
Then the real season starts at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where Smithley will drive the No. 0, but also is working on a deal to get into a Legends car. “I started my career racing Legends cars at Atlanta Motor Speedway and I want to bring it full-circle at my hometrack,” he said. He also is working on plans to enter one of the two other races that weekend, but those have not been finalized.
On a somber note, Smithley and his family are mourning the loss of John C. Ward, who died on Tuesday. His cousin’s father-in-law will have a sticker above the passenger window.
And a long time employee of JD Motorsports passed away this week, Smithley and his family said. Longtime car painter Bryan “Hippie” Dorsey suddenly got very sick early this past week, went to the hospital, and died on Thursday morning. So the entire four-car organization will have that on their minds as they race.
Cockrum racing to honor his mom this weekend
Chris Cockrum has been coming to Daytona Speedweeks as a driver all but one of the last 11 seasons. First in ARCA, then in the NGOTS, Cockrum now has opened each of the last five seasons in the NXS. But 2019 is completely different for the 32-year-old from Conyers.
In September of last year, Cockrum’s mother, Lynn, got very sick and went to the hospital with what they thought was a respiratory problem. It turned out it was cancer in her lungs and she coded one night, lost brain activity, and died a few days later. The family was stunned.
Driving for Rick Ware Racing’s No. 17 entry, Cockrum will carry familiar colors, but will also have his mom’s name above the passenger door and on the rear bumper cover. The back of the car reads, “In Loving Memory of Lynn Halstead Cockrum We Will Always Love You and Miss You Mom!”
For those that have felt this kind of loss, they know how hard returning to places is. Cockrum’s father, also named Lynn, always nervous and intense about his son’s racing efforts, has that same tenor, but also has a nostalgic look in his eyes. Chris has just a slightly different tone in his voice. And they have more family and friends with them this weekend than they normally do.
“You just have to keep your mind screwed in,” Cockrum said, when asked how he stays focused. “If I let my mind get off of the main focus at all, I lose track.”
Cockrum’s mom was the glue that held their race weekends together. She would buy or cook food for the race team and the family and friends staying in the RV. She insisted I stay with them in the RV when she found out I was going to camp in my car. And when the boys, including Chris’ younger brother Andrew, were amped up and frustrated about the racing, she was always the cool breeze that soothed the mood and centered everyone. They will all be looking upward for that calm this weekend.
While Cockrum’s car and many other small teams struggled in the post-practice inspection line, Cockrum has decent speed this weekend and, like Smithley, hopes to ride around and avoid the Big One. He failed to qualify for this race a year ago. His best finish is 21st, back in 2015. But just as the NGOTS showed Friday night, surviving may be the name of the game and if Cockrum can change his luck and avoid the big wrecks, he could have a big day. As long as he is safe, his mom is sure to be looking down and smiling.
Follow Doug on all weekend for updates on Twitter: @DougTurnbull and Instagram: @FireballTurnbull .