AVONDALE, AZ — Denny Hamlin says the Championship Weekend here at Phoenix isn’t quite like it used to be a decade or so ago. But he also notes nothing is anymore. Kyle Larson says that he honestly expected more out of it in his first ever trip to the Championship 4 as a title contender.
But, if the racing and champion for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series season finale is anything like we’ve seen in the first two races of the weekend, watch out.
On Friday night, Ben Rhodes won the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series title in emotional fashion.
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?
Same now for Daniel Hemric. He’d like to eventually make it back up to a NASCAR Cup Series ride one day. He did it once and was Rookie of the Year. Unfortunately for him. Richard Childress Racing had signed Tyler Reddick one year prior and Reddick won the Xfinity Series title in the same year Reddick was ROY in Cup. Reddick wanted to move up to Cup as he had no use for a third straight Xfinity season after winning titles in his first two.
So, instead of letting him get away, RCR replaced Hemric with him.
Hemric, went back down to Xfinity as a result but on a part-time basis with JR Motorsports. A first win was coming soon, right?
It never did.
Then he joined Joe Gibbs Racing on the Xfinity side for 2021. A win was coming again right? 32 races down. No wins.
He lined up on the inside of Austin Cindric on the final restart in overtime. He stayed close and prevailed by just .030-seconds en route to not only his first career win in 208 starts, but his first title too.
“It isn’t for all those kids, about racing trying to get to a level, it’s about people in life,” Hemric said following his championship. “It’s about coming from nothing and making yourself all that you work for. That’s what it’s all about. This is the American dream, I’m living proof of it. Just unbelievable.
“They asked me all year, How bad you want it? I gave one away here in the spring. Felt like I had to give one up here last week. We were not going to be denied.
“Thank you, Dave Rogers, Bill and Cindy Gallaher, everyone at Poppy Bank, Lou Gallaher, JR, I’m talking to you. Man, they took a chance on me. 2015, some form or fashion. Oh, they stuck with me through times they probably shouldn’t have, to be honest with you.
“That backflip good enough for you? I’ve been waiting a long damn time to do that. Thank you Joe Gibbs, everyone at TRD, Toyota, Bell helmets. Everyone here that makes this program what it is.
“I know I’ve given up a lot. People have doubted me. I’ll do it all over again for a night like this.”
Ironic that the guy who’s car nearly didn’t make it here on Friday for practice due to his hauler hitting a deer in Texas on its way out, the one with 10 runner-up finishes, always the bridesmaid, never the bride, beat the guy who earned his third straight runner-up finish on the season and eight overall for 2021.
Hemric, entered the day 0-for-207 in his NASCAR career. Winless in 50 Truck Series starts. Winless in 38 Cup Series starts. Then winless in 118 appearances in the Xfinity Series.
Saturday, he doubled his trophy case by taking home a race winning trophy as well has a championship one to go along with it.
For Hemric, he was in such shock of the win and the title he didn’t know how to act.
“I felt like I blacked out, to be honest,” he said. “I don’t want people to think I’m not emotional because I’m probably one of the most emotional guys there are. When you go through as much, I think back immediately, honestly, to 2019 when I lost my ride. I felt like my life was unraveling before me. Everything I build from the time you’re five years old till you’re 27, 28, the next thing you know the decline starts. I was counting it out, especially then.
“To be able to have these people here, Poppy Bank, Bill, Cindy, Mr. Koch taking another chance on my rebuilding my career. I knew at green-white-checkered I had the opportunity of a lifetime, and I was not going to let it pass me by again.”
Hemric said that he went to bed last night feeling like he was going to go to sleep 24 hours later a champion. That confidence paid off.
“Knew that, whatever reason, it was going to work out,” he said. “Even when I felt like I gave one up last week in order to make sure we got here as a race team, I knew there was a purpose. I knew the good Lord had a plan. I promise you there can’t be much more of a testament of continuing to show up when you don’t want to, when you don’t think you can anymore.
“These guys have continued to push me to do that. Dave Rogers, I’m forever in his debt for the amount of preparation and leadership he’s brought to my life this year. Everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, TRD, Poppy Bank, what can I say? Mr. Bill and Cindy Gallaher, they’ve been my rock since 2014, 2015, continued to invest in my career, invest in my program even when they probably shouldn’t.
“For whatever reason I knew when I had that dream two months ago that it was going to come full circle. We didn’t really have a good short run car all night, and Dave Rogers made incredible adjustments to give me exactly what I needed to keep me in sight with an opportunity when we saw the white flag. That’s all I wanted, all I needed.”
He won this race via several late race cautions but it all sparked when fellow Championship 4 driver AJ Allmendinger spun his No. 16 Chevrolet on Lap 180. While some may say it looked egregious, Allmendinger say it truly wasn’t. He just had a terrible handling race car and a vibration at the time.
He felt terrible for not only causing a yellow but also it hurt Cindric too.
See, Cindric had a large lead over Hemric at the time. In order for Hemric to even have a chance at a title, he needed a caution. So did Allmendinger. He was sixth at the time and was in no shape or form going to race for a title at that point of the race.
That’s why the spin looked fishy but he was remorseful that it wasn’t on by intent.
“I’m pretty sure he had a massive lead. We never had the speed all day to run with him or Daniel. I thought at the end of the day you’re still trying to get the best finish. We were going to run fifth or sixth,” Allmendinger said on why he apologized for his spin.
“We had a vibration start with, I don’t know, 40 to go, maybe a little bit more than that, I’m not sure when we went back to green. Kept trying to figure out what it was. I kept asking if it was a loose wheel. They kept telling me no, we’re positive we got ’em all.
“At that moment I decided that I didn’t think that was true. I was literally about to come down, turn in, go to pit road, felt like there was nothing on the right rear and I spun out. I don’t want to be the storyline like that, especially when he’s got a lead and deserving to probably go win another one.
“At that point you don’t know if a caution is going to come out anyway. I had nothing to gain. I just didn’t want to be a part of the storyline.
“It wasn’t on purpose. At the end of the day, that’s not what I wanted to happen. It deserved to play out however it was supposed to play out. That’s why I apologized. It pissed me off because we had no lug nuts on the right rear, about to fall off. Pissed me off that it caused a yellow that I didn’t want to have happen. It didn’t help me and it cost him a headache.”
Hemric’s crew chief Dave Rogers said that the restart plan actually started occurring a couple of weeks ago.
“Yeah, all this started weeks ago, everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing preparing a great race car,” he said. “We knew we were going to have a good piece out here. Missed the balance a little bit. Didn’t have quite the speed we wanted. But we knew we had a good race car.
“Daniel and I have been talking all week. We’ve watched these races. It’s going to come down to a green-white-checkered. We talked about it every day this week. We got to go, we got to make things happen at the end. I knew where Daniel’s mind was. He had great restarts all day. I was confident he could get it done. Heck of a race with Austin. Austin is a great defending champion. To beat him heads up at the end was a lot of fun.”
Everyone came down pit road for their final stops and they exited Cindric, Hemric and Gragson running 1-2-3 respectively. Hemric chose to restart to the inside of Cindric who felt like the top lane was the best lane. It was true as he got off the line great before a quick caution on the restart for Jeb Burton getting ran over by Sheldon Creed.
That set up another restart. Again, they restarted on the front row. Again, Cindric got off the line with the lead before another yellow for a crash behind a lap later.
“I felt like the launch was going to be really important during most of those caution laps,” Cindric said of the restarts. “My stress level was relegated to the launch. I feel like I played that really well tonight.
“I felt like I probably played it better tonight than I probably ever have. So I’m proud of that.
“Just the reason being, usually Phoenix has been a racetrack that’s either bottom dominant or, since we’ve had the tracks compound, top dominant. The moment you can enter equal with somebody in whatever the preferred lane is, you can clear ’em. I feel like I may have pioneered a little bit too soon as far as how powerful the bottom can still be on restarts.
“I felt like it was important to do that, to get the track position. Still worked out. Obviously just didn’t have enough of a margin entering turn three on the last lap.”
It set up overtime. Another shot for Hemric to exercise those demons that haunted him. He had a record tying 10 runner-up finishes in his career but no wins. Something always gets in the way of a win.
He’s now staring a trophy in the biggest moment of his life in the wide eyes. Could he get the restart of his life?
Cindric got him again but Cindric didn’t let him get away. He stalked Cindric across the strip to get the white flag. 1 mile left between he and eternity. Could he get pass Cindric?
“With the final restart I think the catalyst there was not getting clear off of turn four,” Cindric said of all those restarts. “Obviously he drove it in stupid deep and left reared me, was still able to stay side-by-side. I feel like that was the catalyst for him still being close heading into turn three.
“That was all he needed to be was close. Then it’s I got to put front bias on the car so I don’t get loose on entry, because he’s going to at least air pack me, if not, get me loose, which I got loose and then got rear-ended. That pushes me up the track.
“I think the only thing I could have done better is shallow off the corner, slide myself into a downshift. I didn’t think that was going to be the best move. You can easily counter that by driving in soft, driving literally straight up underneath me.
“I feel like I did a lot of the right things there. Just not enough.”
He had a run on him and made his move in Turn 3. They bumped which stalled Cindric’s momentum and propelled Hemric to the finish line .030-seconds ahead of Cindric in earning his first career title.
“That’s his moment. That’s his shot. I don’t think it was on purpose,” Cindric said of the move in the end. “I don’t think it was by any means outlandish or dirty. I knew the bump was coming for sure. I know my left rear bumper cover is vulnerable as ever. Obviously Daniel was in position to be the advocate of that. He certainly used it. He’s the champion because of it.
“I’ve certainly had worse. Wasn’t enough to wreck it. Until you spin somebody out, it’s not dirty racing.
“If everyone in the stands enjoyed it, it’s good racing. I’m appreciative of the opportunity to race on such a big stage, race for Roger Penske, represent Ford Performance, all of our sponsors that helped us this season.
“It would have been awesome to finish this out. I felt like we had a dominant race car, felt like we did everything right. Come up a little short. Sometimes it’s like that way.
“Unfortunately at the end of both seasonal championships this year, I’m getting obviously moved out of the way, endured. That’s hard racing. That’s why everyone enjoys watching this series, is because there’s a lot on the line.