AVONDALE, AZ — Ben Rhodes did it. The Kentucky native was chastised a lot in the past due to his aggression but here he was not tempering his moves at the end of Friday nights Lucas Oil 150 at the Phoenix Raceway.
Rhodes, used his bumper to get past Zane Smith for third place in the race but first among Championship 4 contenders, with eight laps remaining. The championship was back within his grasps.
But, the aggression didn’t stop there. He was all over Sheldon Creed for second after. When he could have just rode it out, he didn’t want to stop. Aggression got him this far and be damned will he let up in the biggest moment of his life.
Rhodes, 24, says that he wasn’t as aggressive though as it looked all night. He let others go thinking bigger picture as he was the leader among title contenders for the first 110 laps.
Then Smith passed him. He thought it was over. He went into overdrive and it worked.
“That was the hardest last 40 laps I think I have ever driven in my life,” said Rhodes, who won the first two races of the season and none since. “I was doing things to the race car I probably shouldn’t have been doing. It was dumb, but I had everything to lose.”
He stormed back and was helped when Smith caught lapped traffic with 10 to go. Two laps later, Rhodes made a bold move by getting into the back of Smith entering Turn 2 to move him up the track and speed by.
He’d never look back.
Now, what’s next? Does he return to ThorSport in 2022? He’d like to. He hopes that it will happen as Rhodes calls this relationship a perfect match.
“I wouldn’t even be here today if it wasn’t for Duke and Rhonda,” a smiling Rhodes said, holding his championship trophy.
“They gave me my opportunity in the sport. They were my very first full-time national series team that I raced for and I’ve been with them ever since. They are so amazing and I can’t even begin to thank them enough.
“This has just been the ride of a lifetime and I hope it’s not over. This is a feeling you get and savor for the rest of your life, but you’re hungry for more. I love this, but I love racing even more and Daytona can’t get here fast enough.”
Most NASCAR teams reside in North Carolina. ThorSport is in Sandusky, Ohio. Most NASCAR drivers live near those North Carolina shops. Rhodes still lives in Louisville.
The perfect pairing in these circumstances are champions. He doesn’t want to leave now. The question is, should he?
He’s still young enough to be a Cup driver one day. Some people forget that. Some think Rhodes is older than what he is and that’s because this was already his sixth full-time season in Truck competition — all with ThorSport.
He showed up in 2014 as a JR Motorsports development driver but wound up a ThorSport truck driver. He only got 10 shots in Xfinity with JRM but Trucks ended up as his path.
141 starts, five wins, 41 top five finishes, 76 top 10s, five poles and 835 laps led later, he’s a champion.
He’s only 24, not yet reached his prime or full potential. When the dream of stock car drivers is to make it to the top, does Rhodes still strive to move up or find a place among Truck Series greats?
See, he’s not old by any stretch of the imagination but he’s not getting any younger. At the ripe age of 24, his career is at a crossroads. As Cup teams are looking for younger and younger talent, he’s still young enough to land somewhere. Does he want to? Does he take that risk?
If he waits any longer, he will surely get passed over. If he leaves and bets on himself, he may not find a competitive ride and fizzle out as someone who couldn’t win in the bigger series.
So, what does he do?
He raced with Spire back in June at Sonoma but that’s the extent to his Cup opportunities.
He can drive. He showed he can win a championship. That’s very valuable. Now, what can he do with it?