LINCOLN, Ala. – In a thriller of a closing for the Sparks 300, Austin Hill made his car wide enough to keep Noah Gragson from passing for the lead. It ultimately cost both of them, as the front pack passed underneath and relegated both Hill and Gragson to 14th and 10th place finishes respectively.
“The race came down to the end,” said Hill.
The final five laps saw a classic Talladega Superspeedway duel between Sam Mayer and eventual race winner A.J. Allmendinger, among others in the mix. Despite leading the most laps, Hill wasn’t able to get back to the front fast enough. At the same time, he felt his only option was to block Gragson’s run from the outside.
“ I saw that the second lane was coming,” Hill explained from his perspective. “And my spotter (Derek Kneeland) said, ‘Hey, get up, the second lane is coming.’ I was fully committed to trying to blocking the 9 and keep him behind me. Right when I went to block the 9 and he was moving up, I saw that he was getting shucked out and I went to go turn down and got really loose with him on my bumper.
“We just both got out of the groove and went to the back. At that point when you don’t have anybody really working with you, it just makes it tough to get back up there.”
For Gragson, it was no hard feelings as the two raced hard for the win. He was able to climb back up to the top 10 by the drop of the checkered flag, but knew he missed out on a historic opportunity. Last weekend, he tied the all-time Xfinity record for consecutive wins with four. It matched Sam Ard’s feat from 1983 for the second time in Xfinity series history. While five would have been nice, Gragson is more focused on the ultimate prize in his last full-time year with JR Motorsports.
“We really wanted that fifth win in a row and had a shot at it, but it just fell apart,” Gragson shrugged. “(We) executed a good race, put ourselves in position to have a shot to win with three to go with making our move on the leader Austin Hill and just kinda fell apart from there. We’ll go back and learn and get better. Super proud of our team. Just so grateful to be racing in the Xfinity series. There’s so many badass drivers out here and so much fun that we’ve had our good days where I knew it would eventually come to an end.”
Both admit it was a strong day overall. Hill won both stages for 20 bonus points, and Gragson won last week at Texas Motor Speedway to lock himself into the Round of 8. For Hill, he’s come close in both events.
“I mean, solid effort I guess,” Hill shared, defeated but not destroyed, despite earning two draft track wins this year at Daytona International Speedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway. “We wanted to win the race and we stayed aggressive, but it just didn’t work out. We gotta take the positives. We gained a lot of Playoff points. We got the Stage 1 and 2 wins, just trying to think of the big picture, but I just really wanted to win here today.”
For Gragson, it was a race from recovery. The team noticed a faulty tire on pit road during pre-race, and was forced to change the tire. Per NASCAR’s rule book, the No. 9 car would have to start at the rear of the field for unapproved adjustments. While it set the team back, they put on quite a show for the finish.
“I felt like we – from starting in the back because we had a tire going down on pit road on the grid before the race – did think that would set us back,” Gragson continued. “We drove up to ninth in a lap and a half, and then got a caution for the 54. (We) pitted, went to the back and we’d get up to the second, third, fourth row but just kinda stalled out there for the first and second stage. This package I feel races really good at Daytona, but it’s really hard to make moves here without track position. But I thought we had a decent Bass Pro Shops Camaro. Not the worst but not the best, just kinda struggled being loose all day. I couldn’t make nearly the moves and be aggressive on the wheel to go to the top or go to the bottom or fill holes or whatnot. But that’s no excuse; we put ourselves in position there under those green flag stops.
“That green flag stop was pretty badass to out-brake those guys and beat them to the start of pit road. I thought that was pretty cool.”
The Round of 8 is just around the corner, but focusing on the Roval for bonus points and another win could swing the pendulum their way. And both competitors know how valuable that momentum and confidence can mean for their teams.
“I want to say I’m about 44, 46 (points) to the good,” said Hill, explaining his Playoff points position. “I feel pretty comfortable going to the Roval. Obviously, anything can happen; it is a road course. But we’ve been really fast on the road courses we’ve been to. We’re just going to be really aggressive on the road courses like we were here today at Dega, and try to get as many stage points as we can in Stage 1 and 2, and try to go for another win.”
“We’re going to go to the Roval, prepared and as confident as ever to try to go win that one,” declared Gragson, who already holds seven victories after 28 races in the 2022 season including a win here at Talladega in the spring.
“Our goal is to go to Victory Lane.”