Sunday, July 9, 2023

CUP: Early tangle in Turn 4 hands Austin Hill first Cup Series last-place finish

PHOTO: @BeardOil62

by Brock Beard Editor-in-Chief

Austin Hill picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Quaker State 400 Available at Walmart at the Atlanta Motor Speedway when his #62 Bennett Transportation / Beard Oil Chevrolet fell out with crash damage after 92 of 185 laps.

The finish came in Hill’s third Cup start. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 7th under the DVP, the 19th for the #62, and the 842nd for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 11th under the DVP, the 30th for the #62, and the 1,899th for Chevrolet.

Just like Colby Howard, who on Saturday scored his first Truck Series last-place finish, Austin Hill had finished last once before in another series. On August 1, 2019, Hill took the spot at Eldora, where his #16 United Rentals Toyota was involved in a multi-truck pileup after 79 laps. He recovered nicely in the next round at Michigan as he scored his second of four wins that season. Hill never quite made it to the Championship Four in the Truck Series, but soon found greener pastures in the XFINITY Series.

During his Truck career, Hill’s team owner Shigeaki Hattori had also entered him in XFINITY races through a collaboration with Carl Long’s team Motorsports Business Management. In 2019, Hill had finished 9th in his series debut at Indianapolis, then improved his career mark with a 5th at Kansas in 2020. For the 2022 season, Hill made the switch from Toyota to Chevrolet as he took the controls of Richard Childress Racing’s #21 entry. The results were instantaneous. At Daytona, in their first race together, Hill scored his first XFINITY Series win. Since then, he’s become a weekly contender with dominant reputation on superspeedways. So dominant, in fact, that on this same Atlanta weekend, he expressed frustration that no one drafted with him during Saturday’s XFINITY race. After winning the last two races there, he finished 12th even after a late-race spin.

Hill is still a relative newcomer to the Cup Series. Childress fielded Hill’s first Cup entry last summer at Michigan, where he finished on the lead lap in a solid 18th. He then teamed up with Beard Motorsports, taking over the #62 entry previously driven by Noah Gragson before his full-time promotion to Legacy Motor Club. Their Daytona debut was cut short in Thursday’s qualifying races as Hill joined Chandler Smith on the early ride home. He then finished 24th at Talladega, and would return to pull double-duty in Atlanta.

With no practice, Hill was at least assured a starting spot in Sunday’s race as his Beard Motorsports entry was the only “open” car on an entry list of 37. This also meant his car was the only one serviced under a tent in the garage area while the 36 Chartered entries were parked in their own stalls. Hill qualified 32nd with a lap of 170.579mph (32.501 seconds).

Securing the 37th and final starting spot was Bubba Wallace, who during his up to speed lap had a steering issue, causing him to cancel his run. He’d be joined at the tail end of the field by 34th-place qualifier Christopher Bell, whose #20 Rheem Toyota was docked for unapproved adjustments.

When the race started, Wallace was last across the stripe, 3.254 seconds back of the lead and just behind 36th-place Bell, who was just 0.034 second ahead of Wallace. As Wallace set after Bell, both passed B.J. McLeod to the inside in the #78 Gunk Chevrolet. This put McLeod in last at the stripe, 2.87 seconds back of the lead. But the traffic remained stacked in front of McLeod, allowing him to pull back into traffic and take 34th by Lap 5. By then, the spot fell to Noah Gragson in the #42 Sunseeker Resort Chevrolet. It was Gragson who dropped Austin Hill to last for the first time on Lap 7, but the two were now locked side-by-side. On Lap 9, Hill inched ahead of Gragson in the high lane by just 0.011 second, and Hill dropped Gragson to last the next time by. Both soon caught Ty Dillon, whose #77 Raze Energy Blue Shock Chevrolet started to fall back in the high lane, taking over 36th from Hill on Lap 11. Gragson then started to lose ground with Dillon just before the first caution fell on Lap 17.

Burton's car brought back to his pit stall after his spin.

Harrison Burton had qualified an impressive 5th in the Wood Brothers’ #21 Dex Imaging Ford. On the 17th lap, he was still holding the 10th spot when he suddenly broke loose and spun toward the inside wall heading into Turn 3. While Burton avoided the wall, he was stranded on flat tires, needing a tow back to the pits. Having immediately taken last from Gragson, Burton was also the first to lose a lap, and was between three and four laps down by the time the tow truck brought him back to his pit stall. The crew was advised to not work on the car until after it was lowered and unhooked, at which point the tires were changed. Burton returned to the track four laps down, and was later told that he left behind a piece of his diffuser on pit road. The tow back to the pits had apparently damaged other parts of the diffuser, which became apparent on the ensuing restart. Sent to the tail end of the longest line for entering a closed pit along with Kyle Busch’s #8 Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen Chevrolet, Burton cleared the “Crash Clock” on Lap 24, but two laps later said his car was “fucking cranking loose.” He lost touch with the field by Lap 29, then prepared for the leaders to catch him. He told his team he could only run the low lane if he slowed down, which he did on Lap 51. As Logano put Burton a fifth lap down, he was nearly run over by Tyler Reddick, whose #45 The Beast Unleashed Toyota broke loose trying to blend back into a line, then cut low as he caught his sideways car. 

On Lap 61, Burton made it to the end of Stage 1, where he earned the Lucky Dog to make up one of his five laps. He restarted on Lap 67 behind Michael McDowell, whose fast #34 Ford had a damaged right-front fender after contact from a passing Martin Truex, Jr. on pit road. During the run, Burton said his handling had improved, though it was “still a little free,” and by Lap 75 he was chattering the rear tires. On Lap 81, the caution fell when William Byron, his #24 Axalta Chevrolet penalized for a pit infraction, was hooked in the left-rear by Corey LaJoie, sending Byron spinning through the grass. Byron made it to pit road as his right-rear tire came apart, but lost a lap in the process. While Burton now earned a second Lucky Dog, putting him three laps down, Byron was now the first car one lap down. Byron would get back on the lead lap under the caution that ended the last-place battle. 

Hill makes his left turn to the garage after repairs.

Coming off Turn 4 on Lap 93, Kyle Larson’s #5 Chevrolet slowed in front of a closing Erik Jones. Jones’ #43 Allegiant Chevrolet bumped Larson into a spin, behind which Austin Hill tangled with Chase Briscoe’s #14 Magical Vacation Planner Ford. At first, it seemed all three cars hadn’t suffered serious damage, but Larson’s right-front tire exploded on the way to pit road, destroying his fender, and Hill had an extended stop for a replaced shock. Larson lost a lap, but returned to the track as Hill’s team continued their work. Hill reported his water was at 270 degrees, and was told to shut off his engine. On Lap 97, with the field preparing for the restart, Hill took last from Burton. Hill would have had to serve a penalty for pitting too soon along with Larson and Briscoe, but wouldn’t have the chance. On the 98th lap, Hill’s “Crash Clock” expired. The crew finished replacing thee shock, then on Lap 104 had Hill drive two stalls down to enter the garage, done for the night. NASCAR declared Hill out on Lap 107, originally declared out by a crash. The official results instead listed it as “DVP.”

Larson only ran another 19 laps after the accident before he, too, pulled behind the wall, leain him 36th. Ross Chastain found himself in a similar circumstance to Hill after he was sideswiped during a pileup off Turn 2, damaging his right-front wheel. The crew continued to work through the following restart, then the #1 Worldwide Express Chevrolet rolled behind the wall, taking 35th. Ty Gibbs finished 34th, 35 laps down after damage of his own to the #54 He Gets Us Toyota. Rounding out the group was Noah Gragson, whose late-race issues didn’t bring out the caution, leaving him 11 laps down.

William Byron came back from his spin and pit penalty to hold off Daniel Suarez for the victory, which was decided at 185 laps after rain hit the track. Michael McDowell, who was near the back after fender damage, stretched his fuel as rain approached, securing a 4th-place finish. Harrison Burton climbed within one lap of the leaders and took home 28th at the finish.

Yeley and McLeod battle among the leaders during frantic final laps

In the closing stages of the race, the most impressive performance belonged to J.J. Yeley, who patiently climbed into contention in Rick Ware Racing’s #15 Patriot Mobile Ford. In this, his 19th year in Cup competition, Yeley has outperformed in Ware’s equipment ever since he finished 23rd in his first start of the year at Fontana. He qualified 3rd at the Bristol Dirt Race, finished 11th in Talladega, and then earned a 16th in the Coca-Cola 600, site of his career-best finish in 2007. This time, Yeley found his way into the Top 10 and successfully defended his position. It was just his ninth top-ten finish in his 365th series start, his first since the 2013 Daytona 500. It’s his best overall finish since June 29, 2008, when he finished 3rd in the rain-shortened race at Loudon.

The night also saw B.J. McLeod – the last-place finisher of the previous two straight Cup races at Atlanta, and briefly the 37th-place runner during the opening laps of this one – climb as high as 12th in his #78 Gunk Chevrolet on Lap 131. It wasn’t until later that he dropped back to 20th, and the night also saw him lead on Lap 63. Making his first Cup start since Gateway, this was McLeod’s second-best finish of the year behind his 18th at Talladega, improving on his previous mark of 24th in the second round of the season at Fontana.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #62 in a Cup race since August 16, 2020, when Brendan Gaughan had transmission issues after 46 laps around the Daytona Road Course. The #62 had neve before finished last in a Cup race at Atlanta.

37) #62-Austin Hill / 92 laps / dvp
36) #5-Kyle Larson / 111 laps / crash / led 4 laps
35) #1-Ross Chastain / 124 laps / dvp
34) #54-Ty Gibbs / 150 laps / running
33) #42-Noah Gragson / 174 laps / running

1st) Spire Motorsports (4)
2nd) Penske Racing (3)
3rd) Joe Gibbs Racing, Legacy Motor Club, Live Fast Motorsports, Rick Ware Racing (2)
4th) Hendrick Motorsports, Kaulig Racing, Richard Childress Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (11)
2nd) Ford (5)
3rd) Toyota (2)


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