|PHOTO: Matt Miller, @MGMiller17|
The finish, which came in Hill’s 94th series start, was his first of the season and first in the series since November 11, 2018, when an oil leak ended his run at Phoenix, 39 races ago. In the Cup Series last-place rankings, it was the 57th for the #66, the 60th from rear end trouble, and the 159th for Toyota. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 68th for the #66, the 107th from a broken rear end, and the 327th for Toyota.
After nearly a decade of competing part-time in all three of NASCAR’s top three series, Hill turned out to be one of the biggest stories of SpeedWeeks 2020. The offseason saw the 27-year-old Maryland driver pick up new sponsorship from RoofClaim.com, allowing him to run double-duty at Daytona in both the XFINITY Series and in Cup. He would run both races for Motorsports Business Management, whose team owner Carl Long looked to field multiple cars in both series.
Both were chances Hill eagerly anticipated - on the XFINITY side, he had never finished worse than 23rd in eight previous Daytona starts, and was vying for a Top Five there last July before an accident left him 20th. But Hill had never made a Cup start in either Daytona race. His lone attempt at the Daytona 500 came in 2017, when his Rick Ware Racing entry fell short of racing into “The Great American Race.”
The week proved a success for both driver and team, though not without challenges. In Saturday’s XFINITY race, Hill qualified the team’s Supra 26th on the grid, though he would race without his crew chief Sebastian LaForge. According to the team, a hired paint shop put a narrow strip of body filler around the headlights without telling anyone at MBM. When NASCAR discovered this during inspection, they suspended LaForge for six races, fined the team $50,000, and docked MBM 75 owner points. With the Bondo stripped away, Hill was allowed to race, and charged to a 3rd-place finish – his new career best. LaForge, watching intently from outside the XFINITY garage, celebrated with his teammates after the race.
For the even bigger goal of the Daytona 500, Hill would drive a Ford in place of MBM’s typical Toyotas, and a Roush-Yates engine was under the hood. While Hill narrowly missed locking himself into the 500 field on speed, he had a good enough car to race for the spot in Duel Race 2. For much of that Thursday night, Hill raced side-by-side with J.J. Yeley, knowing that only one of them would earn a spot in the race. In the end, Yeley wrecked on the backstretch, and Hill squeezed by, finishing 16th. Locked into his first Daytona 500 field, Hill became the week’s media darling with several interviews. He also completed all 200 laps, only to be wrecked in overtime for a 27th-place finish.
Hill would run triple-duty in Las Vegas, combined with his first Truck Series start of the year in the #56 team co-owned by his brother Tyler. After Gus Dean finished 26th in Hill’s truck at Daytona, Hill himself worked his way toward the front, only to overheat in the final laps. Multiple stops dropped Hill off the lead lap, and he ended up pulling into the garage just short of the finish. Rain then washed out qualifying for both the XFINITY and Truck Series race, where Hill was locked into each. His #61, a Toyota Camry, would start 29th in the Saturday race. The #66 Toyota Cup car, ranked lowest in Owner Points among “open teams,” secured the 38th and final spot for Sunday. After just 50 laps on Saturday before rain stopped the day’s action, Hill prepared to run the two races on Sunday.
The Cup race came first, where five drivers dropped to the rear. Headlining the group were three Toyota drivers again caught for illegal body modifications – specifically, an unapproved piece below the Toyota crest on the front of each car. The cars of Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, and Christopher Bell were all penalized for the modification while Martin Truex, Jr. and Erik Jones, both teammates of Hamlin and Busch at Joe Gibbs Racing, did not. Also sent to the rear were Garrett Smithley, whose first turn of the season in Rick Ware Racing’s unsponsored #51 Chevrolet began with the car failing pre-race inspection three times, and Brennan Poole, whose Premium Motorsports team had to change engines on his #15 Goettl Chevrolet.
Coming down the backstretch to take the green, wisps of smoke appeared behind the #96 Toyota Certified Used Vehicles Toyota of Daniel Suarez. Just over a week after he failed to make the Daytona 500 following a crash in his Duel, his car sputtered and slowed in Turns 3 and 4, falling out of line and creeping toward the starting line as the rest of the field took off. The caution fell as Suarez lost a lap, then was pushed back to pit road. The crew prepared a battery swap, examined the digital screen readouts and the ECU, then managed to get him back on track just under three laps down.
Next to take the last spot was Garrett Smithley, whose penalized #51 now had a serious overheating problem. The driver made at least two pit stops in the first 14 laps, reporting a water temperature of 247 degrees. The crew pulled all the tape of the grille and sent him back on track, now the last-place runner after 15 laps. Due to a handling issue on top of everything else, Smithley was visibly off the pace as the leaders put him another lap down.
Michael McDowell was the race’s newest challenger when his #34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford became the first car to pull into the garage. The Front Row Motorsports team reported a stuck throttle, requiring several laps for repairs. McDowell dropped to last place on Lap 38, and was in position to not only score his fourth last-place finish in a Cup Series race at Las Vegas, but also break his tie with Joe Nemechek for the most last-place finishes in Cup Series history. McDowell returned to the track on Lap 50, now eighteen laps behind the leaders. Though McDowell remained in last place for much of the race, he gradually closed the thirteen-lap gap on 37th-place Smithley. By Lap 100, the two were 11 laps apart. They were nine apart after 151 laps.
It was during this stretch run that two different Toyotas looked to spoil the party. First was Christopher Bell, who after an incredible save in Turn 4 slammed the backstretch wall laps later with the right-front of his #95 Rheem Toyota. The Leavine Family Racing team managed to keep Bell from losing more than five laps, and somehow completed their repairs with ten seconds left on the six-minute “Crash Clock.” Bell missed the Bottom Five with a 33rd-place finish. Next was Martin Truex, Jr., who after running 2nd to Chase Elliott lost track position for an unscheduled second stop for loose wheels. Truex’s #19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota clipped the wall on Lap 174, then lost a right-front and hit it much harder. Truex, too, cleared the “Crash Clock” and even stayed on the lead lap, ultimately taking 20th.
Hill, meanwhile, lost his first lap shortly after Suarez and Smithley, and was again trying to hold his line as the leaders raced all around him. Hill himself later tweeted that his car was leaking fluid around the halfway mark, then was black-flagged by NASCAR on Lap 185. Already nine laps down, Hill pulled down pit road, then back to the garage. On Lap 193, NASCAR officials reported Hill was the first driver out of the race, citing rear end trouble. Hill took the last spot from McDowell on Lap 198, averting the record run. McDowell climbed to 36th with Smithley taking 35th. Between the pair and Hill came Ryan Preece, who inherited the 2nd spot in the race’s final laps, only to lose the engine on his #37 Natural Light Seltzer Chevrolet. Rounding out the group was Reed Sorenson, 14 laps down in his return to Spire Motorsports’ #77 Chevrolet.
*This marked the second-consecutive last-place finish for the #66 in the spring Cup Series race at Las Vegas. It comes just under one year since “The Lastover,” where Joey Gase famously swept both last-place finishes while the MBM team tried to find a missing crew member.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
38) #66-Timmy Hill / 175 laps / rear end
37) #37-Ryan Preece / 222 laps / engine
36) #34-Michael McDowell / 245 laps / running
35) #51-Garrett Smithley / 252 laps / running
34) #77-Reed Sorenson / 253 laps / running
2020 LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Hendrick Motorsports, Motorsports Business Management (1)
2020 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet, Toyota (1)
2020 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP