It wasn’t easy for either driver, but Ben Rhodes and Austin Hill both left Greenville Pickens Speedway with their tasks accomplished Saturday night.
Hill led the final 58 laps of Saturday’s Kevin Whitaker Chevrolet 140 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East event at Greenville Pickens Speedway and edged out Rhodes on a restart with 12 laps remaining for his second career series victory.
Rhodes swept fast time in both practices and earned his sixth series pole award in qualifying, but was penalized for jumping the initial start of the 140-lap race on the South Carolina half mile. Rhodes spent the rest of the race rallying from his past-through penalty and scored a fourth-place finish at the drop of the checkered flag, which was enough to earn the 17-year-old his first K&N East title.
“I should be really happy about the championship, and I am, but as a driver you’re always focused on what you can do to be better,” Rhodes told Speed51.com powered by JEGS after celebrating the championship. “I’m still focusing on what happened in the race. I’m still mad at myself over that.
“I just got excited and went for the run. I talked to Chris (Wright, series director) before the race because I jumped it a couple times in the previous race. That being said, I was just trying to slow down and it was miscommunication by me. I was not thinking about where the first restart line was. I thought it was the first one, not the second one. I went in between there and it was just an error on my part.”
Rhodes had one shot to make it a clean sweep of the day on a final restart. He had climbed to the second spot late, which put him on the outside of Hill on the final restart. Hill got the edge into turn one when the green flew on lap 128 and the 20-year-old drove away from Rhodes, Cameron Hayley and Gray Gaulding for the victory.
“I got a really good restart,” said Hill in victory lane. “I didn’t spin the tires or anything, so it kind of edged me out into turn one. Coming off turn two, my dad, who was spotting for me tonight, got on the radio and said, ‘You’ve got three car lengths out the back.’ I was like, ‘Dang!’
“I’ve never been emotional in my life about winning a race. But when I came off turn four, I had tears in my eyes.”
Hill’s victory validated a year’s worth of highs and lows that started with his first K&N East victory at Dover International Speedway last September. Since then, Hill has struggled with bad luck, while finishing strong on other occasions, in his first full season on the tour. His family-operated Hill Brothers Racing team may not have the budget of some of the other K&N East teams that have, but he put his resources to good work Saturday by becoming just the third driver of a single-car team to win a K&N East race in 2014.
“It’s been a while since we were in victory lane – Dover last year. I really would’ve thought we would’ve gotten a win before now. Better late than never, I guess. We’re not a Turner Scott, not NTS. I preach it and preach it. These guys, I wouldn’t trade them for the world.”
Hayley, who entered the Greenville event mathematically eligible for the championship, left second on the track and up against an insurmountable point gap to Rhodes with one race remaining.
“We did all we could,” said Hayley, who led 55 of the 140 laps. “Gray (Gaulding) and I both understood after that first caution how precious tires really were. Our tires were really worn down there at the end. We knew we had to save quite a bit there at the beginning. Austin didn’t save as much. Those late-race cautions really played into his hands, saving a little bit of tires under caution. I’m tired of finishing second, but at the same time a great run for our team.
Gray Gaulding led 27 laps through the course of the race, but settled for third at the checkered flag.
“We paced ourselves and were able to lead laps,” said Gaulding. “I just let the 22 (Hill) go and I thought I’d get a caution. Not very often that you don’t get a caution with about 10 laps to go. I thought if we would’ve gotten another caution, we’d be in victory lane. At the end of the day, we’ll go back to the shop to get better and better to go after the championship next year.”
Rhodes finished fourth, followed by Nick Drake in fifth.
Speed51.com will have more on Rhodes’ championship run in the coming days.
The next NASCAR K&N Pro Series East race is the Drive Sober 150 season finale at Dover International Speedway (DE) on Friday, September 26.
Click Here to replay the Speed51.com-powered NASCAR Home Tracks Race Central Live coverage from Greenville.
– By Matt Kentfield, Speed51.com Executive Director – Twitter: @MattKentfield. Photo credits: Brenda Meserve/Speed51.com