As the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series leader for seven straight weeks, Austin Hill was all but assured of making the playoffs.
On Friday night he made it official, winning the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 200 at Kansas Speedway to pick up his first victory of the season and lock up a playoff spot.
After swapping the top spot with Brett Moffitt following the final restart on Lap 88, Hill grabbed the lead for good on Lap 96 of 134 and held it the rest of the way. All told, Hill led four times for a race-high 65 laps.
Hill‘s best finish of the season followed his worst, a 30th-place result at Texas that stemmed from engine issues. Prior to the Fort Worth race, Hill had reeled off seven straight top 10s to open the season.
“Oh, man, it‘s awesome,” said Hill, who increased his series lead to 40 points over second-place Ben Rhodes. “We‘ve been working so hard this season. We‘ve been really consistent. Last week was a bummer, having engine troubles.
“I told the guys before coming here, ‘You know we finished fourth here last year—let‘s finish three spots better.‘ And I‘ll be danged if we didn‘t.”
The only mistake Hill made was an ill-fated attempt to secure the fourth position and top lane for the final restart. Hill hit the brakes on pit road after this stop on Lap 85, only to get hit from behind. He restarted third on the bottom but immediately began battling for the lead with Moffitt.
Thanks to the pit road snafu, Hill‘s No. 16 Hattori Racing Enterprises Toyota will need some work before Saturday‘s second race of a weekend doubleheader.
“Now we‘ve got to go replace the bumper and get it ready to go tomorrow,” said Hill, who won for the first time in three Kansas starts and the fifth time in his career.
Moffitt and Grant Enfinger battled for the second position during the final green-flag run, with Moffitt prevailing. Hill pulled away as the two drivers fought for position behind him and crossed the finish line with a comfortable 2.928-second lead.
“Really, those last 20 laps felt like they went on forever,” Hill said. “I started thinking, ‘What am I going to do when a caution comes out?‘ Am I going to choose the outside or inside lane and how hard do I drive it into the corner on old tires—just a lot of things were going through my head.
“I‘m glad we didn‘t have to do a green-white-checkered finish, and it just ended like it did. The United Rentals Toyota Tundra was really fast tonight. We do have some work for tomorrow. It felt like on the long run we were just way too free. I had to really pedal it through the corner, but we were good enough tonight.”
Enfinger held third, followed by reigning and three-time series champion Matt Crafton. Sunoco rookies Derek Kraus and Zane Smith were fifth and sixth, respectively, with Rhodes, Sheldon Creed, Johnny Sauter and Todd Gilliland completing the top 10.
Crafton gained one spot in the standings to ninth and now holds an 11-point cushion over Tyler Ankrum, the first driver currently out of a Playoff-eligible position. Stewart Friesen, a Playoff qualifier last year, suffered the most serious damage in the points after an unscheduled pit stop for a flat left rear tire and a 27th-place finish.
With three races left in the regular season, Friesen is 44 points behind Kraus, who holds the 10th and final Playoff position.
The Gander Truck drivers will line up again at 1:30 p.m. ET on Saturday for the second race of the doubleheader, the e.p.t. 200 at the 1.5-mile track (FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).