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Defending champ Hill staying sharp

By Brian Paglia

bpaglia@news-daily.com

Austin Hill does not intend to chase the Pro division championship at Thursday Thunder, which the Winston-native won last season by 53 points. He's raced for points at Atlanta Motor Speedway since he was 6 years old, and there is little left for him to accomplish. His father thought it was time to move on, to transition to Late Models and chase the bigger dream, the NASCAR dream.

But things have seemed to conspire against Hill. The economy crushed his father's commercial construction business. His Late Model was demolished in a race at Montgomery Motor Speedway, rendering his car, and season, immobile for at least two months.

So while Hill waits, he has returned to Thursday Thunder. Opening week, Hill was a spectator. Last week, Hill was in his No. 24 Legends car displaying the form that made him a champion last season. He finished second, but a disqualification gave him the victory.

"This is to keep myself in the car," Hill said, "to keep my focus. We've run points ever since I was 6. We ran points every season. My dad didn't want me to run for points. I've already won a championship here and pretty much everywhere else."

Indeed, Hill has won at every level of Thursday Thunder. His first series win was in Bandits in 2005. He won twice in Young Guns. He won three races in two seasons in Semi-Pro, finishing second in points in 2008. He won twice and had four more top-5 finishes in Pro last season on his way to the championship. Hill also has a Semi-Pro championship at the Summer Shootout series at Lowes Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C., which he won in 2008.

With all that accomplished, the popular notion amongst racing circles is to move on to Late Models. So Hill did. The rising junior at Alexander High School in Winston, Ga., had raced his Late Model six times and finished each in the top-5. Hill finished fourth at the World Crown 300, which was won by Chase Elliot, the 13-year-old son of NASCAR champion Bill Elliot.

Then came Montgomery. Then came the economic recession.

"We were running fourth," Hill said, "and the second and third car just ran into me and took me out.

"My dad's work has been real bad over the past three months. He had to close the shop down. He's starting to get a lot more money now and building a lot more. ... We're building the Late Model back up and we're just going to mess around with (Legends) for that million dollar race."

Ah, yes. The Million Dollar race. Charlotte Motor Speedway. Three days. One thousand cars. A $1 million purse. NASCAR drivers Joey Logano and David Ragan plan to enter. And so does Hill.

While Hill's future is stagnant, the Million Doller race maintains his motivation. But he won't give up on his Late Model, on NASCAR, on a bigger dream that may have outgrown Thursday Thunder.

"I'm wanting to go to NASCAR," Hill said. "We've been running good in the Late Model. We've won a lot of championships in Legends. We're getting our name out there. We've just got to keep trying."