DARLINGTON, S.C. — Austin Hill did his best to keep the big-picture goals top of mind Saturday afternoon at Darlington Raceway. He had lined up inside NASCAR Cup Series regular Denny Hamlin for an overtime restart and battled valiantly before coming home 0.657 seconds short at the checkered flag.
“Good fight,” he told his No. 21 Richard Childress Racing team on the radio post-race, before adding with a laugh: “Sucks to be second, though.”
It was a strong second place that Hill took solace in after Saturday’s Sport Clips Haircuts VFW Help A Hero 200, and the result helped him keep his lead in the Xfinity Series standings with one race left in the regular season. He held off a dominant John Hunter Nemechek, who was one of his closest competitors in Saturday’s 148-lap preliminary and sticks as his nearest challenger in the standings as well.
Hill led seven times for 29 laps and fought pressure from Hamlin and Nemechek throughout the final stage. He took advantage of having the pit stall nearest the pit-road exit but said that his No. 21 RCR crew “was just on it today,” repeatedly gaining him spots with speedy service.
His lament was making the most of restarts, which he said he and the team would review to see where further gains could be made. But he left the historic 1.366-mile track with a 23-point edge in the points standings over Nemechek and a 33-point cushion over third-place Justin Allgaier with next Saturday’s race at Kansas Speedway (3 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM, Peacock) wrapping up the regular season.
“I mean, coming in here, everybody was just really wanting to make sure that we didn’t lose too much ground to the 20 (Nemechek) and the 7 (Allgaier), I think we only lost a couple of points to them so we’re still looking good going into Kansas,” said Hill, who is in his second season with the Childress team. “I feel really good about Kansas in general. I’ve won there in a truck. I ran really well there in the Xfinity car, so I feel really good there. I think that we have a shot at winning, just like we did today. So we really did what we needed to do today, that was get stage points and finish solidly in the top five. But yeah, I’m definitely gonna sleep on this tonight and be pretty frustrated with myself on these restarts on maybe what I could have done differently going forward to try to win the race next time.”
Nemechek was in prime position to avenge his defeat the last time the Xfinity Series visited Darlington, where he wound up on the short end of a fender-banging, last-lap clash with Kyle Larson. Saturday, he started from the pole position and led a race-best 99 laps, sweeping the stage wins to add a pair of playoff points to his tally.
Nemechek’s No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota led just one lap in the final stage, however, and he was just a car-length behind Hill after the two traded crossover moves in the final lap. His performance was enough to equal a five-point gain on Hill in the standings with Kansas looming.
“Solid day,” Nemechek said. “Two stage wins, good points. Just came up short by two spots.”