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NASCAR Truck Series at Knoxville: Austin Hill outlasts Chandler Smith for the win

Knoxville, IA, July 9/21 (GRW): The Truck Series took on an unaccustomed challenge when they went to Knoxville, the spiritual home of dirt-track sprint car racing. The truck drivers were, on the main, inexperienced in this type of racing and their trucks, which have been fine-tuned over the years for asphalt ovals, were unsuited to this kind of dirt-track racing. And yet, we were supposed to believe that this was the best kind of show that NASCAR could put on.

But there was a show of sorts, and after a massive wrecking pile-up on lap 155 of the 150-lap (scheduled) race, a winner was declared. By then most of the competitors and the scraggly group of fans in the grandstands, must have simply been glad that this mess was over.

The rookie Chandler Smith took the lead on lap 123 and he stayed in control up to the final restart some six cautions later. In general, so long as Smith was scored as the race leader, he could choose the preferred lower line for the restart. He did not take on fresh tires as everyone else had at the second Stage turnaround, his crew chief having opted to leave him out for the final 60-lap Stage on those worn tires. No one else thought that this would be a winning strategy.

Of course, not pitting saw Smith take the restart to begin the final Stage on the bottom of the front row. For a while he was fighting with Carson Hocevar for the lead but, on every restart after that, Smith had to decisive starting position, low on the front row – and despite his worn tires he managed to find enough grip to hang on to the lead.

Smith was still leading when the first ‘big one’ happened on lap 145, taking the race into overtime. But now, when they lined up again for this restart, Austin Hill had somehow appeared from some distance back and he lined up in the front row above Smith.

On this restart, before the field could take the white flag, they had the real ‘big one’ – it involved 17 of the 40 trucks that had started the race. After a long red-flag to wait while the limited number of tow trucks hauled the broken trucks off the track, the trucks lined up for yet another restart with Smith and Hill at the front.

No doubt Sheldon Creed (who has lots of experience on all different kind of tracks) expressed the feeling of many of his other competitors. “We don’t belong here.” Note that Kyle Larson who is currently one of the stars of dirt-track sprint car racing as well as the NASCAR style, opted to skip this race; he will be back here for the sprint car Knoxville Nationals in a few weeks.

Another restart, another pile-up and another caution. Again, Smith held the advantage over Hill.

Yet another restart (the 14th caution and the third in overtime). However, as they came around to take the yellow, Hill, on the high side, managed to get alongside Smith and he was scored in the lead – setting up a different scenario for the next (and final, as it turned out) restart. Now Hill had the choice and he picked the low side of the front row, leaving Smith – on his now well-worn tires – with the disadvantage of the high side for this final restart.

The green flew and this time there was no yellow. Hill stayed ahead for the two laps and he took the checker by a one-second margin over Smith. The race, which was supposed to end on lap 150, saw the checker after four overtime restarts on lap 179.

“Man, I thought we were out of it,” said an elated Hill, who had shown speed throughout the race but fell back from the second position after a restart on Lap 73. “I thought we were out of it for a little bit. I had that restart outside of the 38 (Todd Gilliland) earlier in the race, and I fell back all the way to like 20th.

“I didn’t think we were going to make it back up. Track position was huge. It was really hard to get around people—you had to kind of rough ‘em up a little bit to get around ‘em. But we don’t stop, we don’t quit, even when we think we’re down and out.”

That NASCAR should include such a race as part of the package that will eventually determine the series champion is an insult to the teams, the drivers and the fans. It’s like making sprinters compete in a potato sack race to qualify for the Olympics. Yes, someone will win the joke race but is that a fair way to judge championship performance in another context?

As for the crowd, if NASCAR thinks that this kind of novelty act will please the fans, why were the smallish grandstands at this little track half-empty?

The Truck Series has only one more race before the start of their playoff series – at Watkins Glen on Saturday, August 7th, a track they have not visited since the year 2000. The Truck Series playoffs (a seven-race elimination series) will begin at Gateway (St. Louis) on August 20th.

• Click HERE for the Race Results

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