16Austin Hill (eighth) led Toyota at the ToyotaCare 250 at Richmond Raceway on Thursday evening. Stewart Friesen (10th) also finished in the top-10, with his fifth straight top-10 effort. With this finish, Hill clinched the regular season championship and 15 Playoff points. Hill will be joined in the Playoffs by Rookie of the Year contender and fellow Team Toyota driver Christian Eckes.
AUSTIN HILL, No. 16 United Rentals Toyota Tundra, Hattori Racing Enterprises
Finishing Position: 8th
How important is the regular season championship heading into the Playoffs?
"It definitely means a lot and that was our ultimate goal coming in here tonight. After as good as we were in stage one leading those laps, we thought we were going to win stage one until tires got put on and we fell a few positions back. All in all, it was a really good effort from everyone at HRE (Hattori Racing Enterprises). Scott (Zipadelli, crew chief) and all the guys, they worked really hard. Just kind of what we talked about earlier today was at the end of the race it just not falling our way. We really thought a caution was going to come out, we wanted to leave a set (of tires) laying just in case a caution came out with 30 or 40 (laps) to go. It went green the rest of the way and all those guys pitted. Our Tundra, we just started fighting really free entry and really loose off on the long run. Then I was just kind of holding on at that point. I was praying for a caution. I think we still had a shot at it if the caution could have come out. If we had 20 or so laps to go, we could have had a shot at the win still. All in all, we did our job today getting the 15 bonus points and the regular season championship, which is really nice to have those bonus points, but kind of stings a little bit because we definitely felt that we had a better truck tonight than an eighth place finish."
How has this team progressed since you came on board last year?
"Last year starting off the season, getting the win at Daytona was nice, but then we went through just a really bad spell of having issues, whether it was engine issues or something happening to where we didn’t finish the race. This year, we’ve been in our stride pretty much all season long. There’s been a few races where we feel like we were a little off, but every weekend so far we’ve felt like we’ve been in contention for wins and nice, solid top-fives and top-10s. Just consistency this year. Me and Scott (Zipadelli, crew chief) are working really well together. Having a year under your belt with a crew chief and then being able to do a second year with the same group of guys is huge just because you kind of know each other, you kind of know what the driver likes and you know what kind of adjustments the crew chief is going to make by the tone of your voice and what you’re saying on the radio. We’ve been just gelling really good and it’s nice to have the regular season championship, but we still have a lot of work to do to get that championship at the end of the season."
Will you race any differently in the Playoffs?
"The way I’ve always raced is be aggressive and take chances when you can and make moves. If you have to go three-wide on a restart then you go three-wide on a restart to try to gain position because clean air is huge in the Truck Series no matter if it’s a short track or a big track. That’s just kind of my mindset is just being aggressive and just trying to stay up front each and every week and just having nice, solid points days and getting stage points and obviously stage wins are nice to have because then you get Playoff points. It’s just nice having those points. As aggressive as you can be is kind of the key and Bristol is one of those animals that we haven’t really figured out yet. Last year we kind of struggled. We ran back half of the top-10 all night long. That’s kind of one of those unknown races for us that we’re going to go into and just try to get as many points as we can. We’ve been working really hard on our short track program and I think it kind of showed at Gateway. We didn’t start off great at Gateway, but we were really good at the end of the race and finished third. Here tonight, if we could have been on the same tire strategy as everybody else we could have definitely had a shot at the win and at least a top-three finish. It just goes to show how good our short track program is this year and hopefully we can keep it up."
CHRISTIAN ECKES, No. 18 Safelite Auto Glass Toyota Tundra, Kyle Busch Motorsports
Finishing Position: 18th
Tough race tonight, but you have made the Playoffs. What is your focus going into this?
"We wanted to build some momentum tonight, and we didn’t complete that, but in the same capacity, the regular season has not gone perfect for us and now we get a reset and we get to go try to be perfect. I’m just looking forward to it in my Safelite Toyota Tundra. We are going to race the hell out of them."
DEREK KRAUS, No. 19 Gates Hydraulics/NAPA Belts & Hoses Toyota Tundra, McAnally Hilgemann Racing
Finishing Position: 23rd
What was going on with the truck tonight?
"Yeah, I hope something broke in the front to cause it to do what it was doing. It was on the splitter the whole race, nothing they did kept it off of it or made it any better. We are thinking something broke. My NAPA Toyota guys never gave up on it. They tried their best to do what they could do, but something was probably broke."
As you said, your team did all you could do tonight. They had great strategy early to get the stage points. How was the race as a whole for you?
"We kind of knew right away. The first two laps it took off fine. I was able to roll the top really well. I think I was passing for fourth or something, and then all of a sudden, it just started laying on the splitter and hitting the race track really hard. It kind of threw out the parachute after that, and just kind of went to the back. It was just on the splitter really hard, and I couldn’t do anything about it. Kevin (Bellicourt, crew chief) made a good strategy call to get us a few stage points, putting on those tires right at the end of the stage. It kind of felt good with those tires on, but once every one else got their tires on it just kind of laid on the splitter again and did the same thing. That’s what it did all race. We struggled with it all race."
You still had a great season, and have accomplished a lot in your rookie campaign. What are your goals for the last seven races of the season?
"We still had a really good season. The season is not over yet just because we are not in the Playoffs. We are going to race as hard as we can and try to get wins as good as we can and just bring the best Tundras we possbily can to the race track and just have a solid last seven races."
— Toyota Racing —