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Hill wins Gander Trucks finale at Miami, Crafton wins third championship

Holly Cain
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Hill wins Gander Trucks finale at Miami, Crafton wins third championship

HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Austin Hill bookended his 2019 season with a victory in Friday night‘s Ford EcoBoost 200 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, finishing a comfortable 1.569-seconds ahead of veteran Matt Crafton, whose runner-up effort was enough to earn him his third NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series championship.

Hill won all three stages in the race and led a race-high 56 laps to give the No. 16 Hattori Racing Enterprises Toyota its second consecutive Miami win. Last year, Brett Moffitt drove the truck to a race and series championship trophy.

Christian Eckes finished third to earn Kyle Busch Motorsports its record seventh series owner championship, the organization‘s sixth in the last seven years.

RELATED: Crafton wins third championship | Unofficial race results

From the drop of the rain-delayed green flag, the four championship eligible drivers — Crafton, fourth-place Ross Chastain, fifth-place Moffitt and 11th-place Stewart Friesen — had to deal with a highly-motivated Hill for the race win. Officially eliminated from playoff contention last week at Phoenix‘s ISM Raceway, Hill came into the event highly-motivated nonetheless.

He drove around title-contender Chastain to win the first stage and held off Crafton for wins in both the second stage and ultimately the race trophy.

The 25-year-old Georgia native finished the season as he started — in Victory Lane — matching his work in the season-opening Daytona International Speedway race, his first career win. He won again at Michigan  International Speedway in the summer and then again at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and was truly a formidable contender through the playoffs. Unable to overcome a points deficit after a crash at Martinsville Speedway in the final playoff round then kept him from the Championship 4. 

“I‘m excited for the win, but at the same time it stings a little bit just because I know that if we would have been a little bit better in the round of six, we could be celebrating a win and a championship,” Hill said. “But like I say, I can‘t thank everybody out there enough.

 

And Hill conceded with a smile, “It‘s awesome to get my fourth win of the season and end on a high note.”

This year‘s champion, Crafton, matches a three-title mark equaled only by Jack Sprague (2001, 1999 and 1997) and exceeded by only NASCAR Hall of Famer Ron Hornaday Jr., who has four titles (2009, 2007, 1998 and 1996). Crafton is the only driver to ever win back-to-back titles in the Gander Trucks Series (2013-14).

“It feels amazing and we‘re one step closer to what Hornaday‘s done,” Crafton said after climbing out of his car, noting many underestimated his No. 88 ThorSport Racing Ford team. “And they called us the underdog.”

Moffitt, who led the series with four wins, 13 top fives along with 17 top 10s and three pole positions, was clearly disappointed with his fifth-place finish.

“We were just pretty bad from the get-go this morning, just missing speed,” said Moffitt, who drives the No. 24 GMS Racing Chevrolet.  “It is what it is, we had a good year and we‘ll re-group and go after it again next year.

“It‘s a disappointment but we‘ll move on and get better.”

Chastain, who was a strong favorite to earn his first title, was equally as disappointed after the race. He led 36 laps on the night and, for much of the early race, looked ready to challenge Hill for the win to land his first NASCAR title.

Chastain won three races and earned a series-best 19 top-10 finishes. A competitor in all three NASCAR national series, Chastain only declared himself championship eligible in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series in June.

“I want to throw up right now to be honest with you, but it has been an absolute dream,” said Chastain, who will drive for Kaulig Racing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series next year.

“It‘s pretty crazy that we did that [made the playoffs], and made it to Homestead. We did everything we could and that says a lot.”

Tyler Ankrum, the driver of the No. 17 DGR Crosley Toyota, finished 22nd but officially earned the series‘ Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors for his season‘s work. He wasn‘t allowed to compete on the big tracks until he turned 18 in March and missed the opening three races of the season calendar.

“We had a really great season I thought,” said the 18-year old Ankrum, who won his career first series race at Kentucky Speedway this summer and qualified for the playoffs as a rookie.

“When we had highs they were really, really high.”