Grant Enfinger muscled the lead from Austin Hill on a two-lap overtime restart to claim the victory in Saturday afternoon‘s Vet Tix Camping World 200 NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
It was especially heartbreaking for Hill, a Georgia native, who had been so vocal about wanting to win at his home track. Late in Saturday‘s race, he looked destined to hold the trophy — bettering the afternoon‘s most dominant drivers, NASCAR Cup Series regulars Kyle Busch and another Georgia favorite Chase Elliott, in the waning laps. Hill led 36 laps on the afternoon, second only to Busch‘s race-best 37 laps out front.
RELATED: Race results
Ironically, it was Elliott who caused the final caution with three laps remaining in regulation, spinning out while running third and making his way forward to challenge for the lead. During the caution period, the front-running trucks all pitted for fresh tires, and Hill returned to the track for the two-lap overtime test as the race leader — only to have Enfinger pull alongside and then make the pass in Turn 1 as the field came around for the last lap.
“It was definitely wild, that‘s for sure,” said Enfinger, who started sixth on that final two-lap green flag run. “We didn’t lead too many laps, but we led the ones that counted.”
It marks the second victory of the season for Enfinger and his No. 98 ThorSport Racing Ford, which finished .215-seconds ahead of Hill and led seven laps. It marks the first win for a Ford truck ever at Atlanta and it was Enfinger‘s first career victory at the track as well. With a triumph in the Daytona season opener, it also marks the first multi-win season of his career.
“Unbelievable Ford F-150 really on the short runs,” Enfinger said. “We didn‘t have everything we needed to make a real run at those guys, Chase [Elliott] and Kyle [Busch] there for the long run, but I do think we were decent, but on the short run, I knew if it came right down to it and we could get a good restart we could make it happen. Fortunately we got a good restart.”
Rookie Christian Eckes tied his career-best series effort, finishing third. Todd Gilliland and rookie Zane Smith rounded out the top five. Ross Chastain, rookie Derek Kraus, former series champion Brett Moffitt, Ben Rhodes and Stewart Friesen rounded out the top 10.
As Enfinger celebrated his dramatic win in front of empty grandstands, Hill climbed out of his No. 16 Hattori Racing Enterprises Toyota and leaned over the driver‘s side window, resting his head on the roof, obviously gutted by the outcome.
“I‘m sure when I go back and watch the race I’m going to look at all the different things I could have done differently for that not to happen,” Hill said. “I saw the 98 was getting a run on me down the backstretch but we had been so good on the bottom all day at the line that I didn‘t really want to give that up and he was able to get to my quarter on entry to three. … Maybe I could have protected the outside line more or made my truck just a little bit wider, but I just think when we go back to the drawing board, maybe I could have said something different to [crew chief] Scott [Zipadelli] and the guys to maybe have a little better truck on that short run.
“It was a good race, I wish it would have went green there at the end but it didn‘t so we’ll have to take what we had and go on. All in all, it was a good points day for us,” said Hill, who retains the championship lead by 20 points over Smith. The defending regular-season champion Enfinger is now ranked fourth, 31 points behind Hill.
In a field featuring two vastly different levels of experience — the track‘s all-time winningest driver Busch along with 14 other competitors making their debut on the Atlanta high banks — the veterans certainly demonstrated their expertise.
For much of the race, the more experienced drivers prevailed. Busch — a five-time winner at Atlanta in the truck series — and fellow NASCAR Cup Series driver Elliott dominated the top of the scoreboard in the early portion of the race, with Busch winning both Stage 1 and Stage 2. Chastain, a truck series championship contender a year ago, put himself into the mix during a long green-flag run in the final stage despite starting 27th in the field.
Among the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Series championship contenders, it was the kind of solid performance Enfinger and Hill needed, even racing against some of the NASCAR Cup Series‘ finest.
Hill spent the early race holding his own among the front-runners, consistent and steady and when the opportunity to take the lead arose during green flag pit stops, Hill was there. With a little help from some uncharacteristic issues for Busch and Elliott.
Busch, who had already established his truck the class of the field, made what would likely have been his last pit stop with 35 laps to go. Immediately after returning to the track, however, his No. 51 Toyota hit the wall as he tried to avoid a damaged truck driven by Jordan Anderson. Unfortunately for Busch, he got a speeding penalty on his green-flag pit stop and then another when he came in to repair that damage. It dropped him to 29th place with 25 laps to go — a full lap down. He ended up 22nd.
Elliott, who tried to pit with Busch on that last set of green-flag stops, was unable to get slowed enough to make his entrance to pit road. He returned to the race back in the pack but had worked his way up to third place with 15 laps remaining ready to challenge Chastain and Hill before crashing with three laps to go. He finished 21st.
“They‘re always tough to swallow when you know you know that you‘re that good and end up second,” Hill said. “But that being my hometown, this is one of the race tracks I’ve wanted to win at since I was a little kid racing here when I was 8 years old racing on the frontstretch. It hurts and it‘s really frustrating, but we‘ll keep digging.
“We have that points lead and we‘re hoping to keep it. I‘m excited to go to Homestead [next weekend], maybe we can get a win there like we did last year and get locked into the playoffs.”
Defending series champion Matt Crafton suffered significant front-end damage on his ThorSport Racing No. 88 Ford as a bottling-up after the pit-road entrance led to a collision with John Hunter Nemechek’s No. 8 NEMCO Motorsports Ford during the Stage 1 break. Crafton recovered to finish 12th; Nemechek was 25th.
The series’ next race is scheduled next Saturday, June 13 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Contributing: Staff reports