Sunoco rookie Jesse Love led almost all the laps, but in the end, it was his Richard Childress Racing teammate, Austin Hill, who had Saturday’s RAPTOR King of Tough 250 fall into his lap.

For Hill, who won last week’s NASCAR Xfinity Series season-opener at Daytona International Speedway, it was the continuation of a serendipitous start to 2024. Hill is the first driver since Tony Stewart in 2008 to win the first two events of an Xfinity season.

The victory was Hill’s third in the last four races at Atlanta Motor Speedway and the eighth of his career.

But victory for the driver of the No. 21 Chevrolet came at the expense of Love, who started from the pole, swept the first two stages and led 157 of 169 laps. Love ran out of fuel at the start of a two-lap overtime, as Hill grabbed the lead for the first time and held off eventual runner-up Chandler Smith by 0.106s.

The bottom line? Running behind the leaders in a single-file line, Hill was able to save more fuel than his teammate at the front of the pack. Hill had enough in his tank to stave off Smith who had pitted for fuel under caution on lap 164.

“I was really thinking we were down and out,” Hill said. “I was thinking the No. 2 (Love) was going to go get ‘em, and hey, if I can’t win, let my teammate win. We were riding there in fourth or fifth—whatever it was—I was saving fuel…”

On the overtime restart on lap 168, Hill’s car stumbled when he shifted from third to fourth gear.

“The No. 81 (Smith) hit me really hard, and that woke it back up, and I had enough fuel to complete the lap. But I’ve got to take this moment to congratulate, Jesse Love, my teammate. He ran an awesome race. To be a rookie and to lead that many laps, he should be sitting in Victory Lane right now.”

The coup de grace for Love came when the Ford of Ryan Sieg ran out of fuel on lap 161 of a scheduled 163 and stopped on the track in Turn 4. The caution extended the race by six laps and allowed a dozen cars to pit before the overtime restart.

Among those who took advantage of the fuel stop was New Zealander Shane van Gisbergen, who finished third in his second Xfinity Series start.

“It’s almost comical,” Love said. “Man, I’m just so…proud of everybody on this Whelen car. It just wasn’t meant to be. Obviously, as a Christian, I’m not going to allow myself to question why we were under caution so long or what happened.

“I always try to take responsibility for everything, so I as a driver I should have saved more fuel. Man, I just didn’t want anybody to catch me off-guard. I thought I saved a ton. Man, that overtime or that caution just lasted forever.

“No matter what, I’m really proud of our guys. We had a great showing. Led a lot of laps man. It just wasn’t in store for us today.”

Van Gisbergen was delighted to be on the other side of the fuel equation.

“Pretty awesome,” he said. “Great job by (crew chief) Bruce (Schlicker) on the box there to pit us. I had so much fun. Just learning about it and running in the pack. Yeah, to be P3 in the second race in the WeatherTech Chevy is pretty awesome. I’m stoked.

“It’s just good to get a result and have a clean car, especially after last week (at Daytona) when I got involved in so much stuff. So, to have a clean race, not make too many mistakes, and complete every lap, we learned a lot. It was awesome.”

Riley Herbst, Love’s foremost challenger over the closing laps was among the first to run out of fuel—from the second position on lap 160. Cole Custer hit empty almost simultaneously, then Sieg, causing the fateful caution.

The gas shortage throughout the field scrambled the finishing order, leaving Sheldon Creed fourth and Parker Retzlaff fifth. Jeremy Clements, Anthony Alfredo, Jeffrey Earnhardt, Ryan Truex and Sammy Smith completed the top 10.

Note: Love is the first driver since Christopher Bell in 2017 to lead more than 100 laps in his first two Xfinity Series starts combined. Bell led 152 of 250 laps in his second start at Iowa. Love led 34 laps in his series debut last Monday at Daytona, giving him a total of 191 for the two races.

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