Ben Rhodes survives elimination, refreshed for postseason run

Logan Whitton/NKP

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

JOLIET, Ill. — Ben Rhodes won’t lie – he would have gladly avoided being the first driver in a NASCAR National Series to need a tiebreaker to make the playoff field on points.

“I don’t want it to be that tense ever again,” Rhodes told Kickin’ the Tires. “I can tell you that much.”

But now that the Louisville, Kentucky native is set for the postseason, he’s confident in his ThorSport Racing team’s ability to defy the odds and contend for a championship.

“I’m happy with being in the playoffs considering the season,” Rhodes said. ‘I know we can contend if we improve upon some of the things that have happened. If we can finish sixth in one of our worst races, I think we can make it to the Championship 4 with no problems.”

If there were any doubt as to how Rhodes and ThorSport would respond to championship adversity, the group proved their mettle in overcoming adversity and mistakes to survive a difficult day at Chicagoland Speedway.

Rhodes faced a litany of issues Friday’s 300 – damage, poor handling and pit-road mistakes among them.

He qualified 13th while Ryan Truex, who entered the day just seven points behind Rhodes for the final playoff spot, scored his first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series pole. With his early problems and Truex’s strong speed, Rhodes surrendered five points from his advantage in the race’s opening two stages. The 20-year-old then suffered damage in a run-in with Matt Crafton early in the final stage, dropping to the back of the top 10 with a tire rub.

Rhodes fought back when his tire rub subsided only to lose ground again on pit road when loose lug nuts during the final round of pit stops forced him to bring the No. 27 Toyota back to his pit crew for a second time. The mistake dropped Rhodes to 15th, well behind Truex for the final playoff spot.

“It was a nightmare race overall for us,” Rhodes said. “We had a couple pit road penalties, didn’t get all of the lug nuts on once and had to come back down. I almost ended up getting taken out of the race by a truck that slid up the track and hit our left-front fender. I thought we were going to either pop a tire or have to come back to pit road and fall laps down. Overall it was just not good, definitely affected the handling.”

The night was a struggle from start to finish. But in the midst of all of his issues, Rhodes fought back. The Kentuckian soared from 15th to sixth in quick succession on the race’s final restart, and managed to hold the position throughout the long 40-lap green-flag run to the finish.

“I didn’t have the opportunity to sit around and wait,” Rhodes said of his restarts. “I saw the (No.) 16 making some crazy moves on the bottom, going three wide. I tried to never put myself in that position, because that’s just a recipe for disaster. I was trying to be calm on restarts and take what I could get.”

Truex held strong up front, but ultimately dropped to fourth by race’s end. The two drivers took the checkered flag in a dead tie on the championship table, but Rhodes inherited the playoff position because he had the best finish of the duo – a second-place run at Pocono Raceway.

Faced with adversity, Rhodes and his team did what needed to be done. That said, Rhodes wasn’t surprised by the result – it was far from the first time he’s been faced with difficult circumstances this season.

“Our whole season’s been a roller coaster, so it prepared us for this race,” Rhodes said. “It’s just been the story of the year. It’s easy to get discouraged, but I’ve learned over this season more than any other how to maintain my emotions and go at everything with a calm, level head.

“That’s what paid off for me tonight. Those circumstances, bad things that happened that put us in this situation were also the ones that I learned from. They helped us get out of this situation tonight.”

It hasn’t been the season that Rhodes wanted or anticipated, but he’s content with a playoff berth after at the end of a challenging regular season. With his playoff bid stamped, Rhodes believes his team enters the postseason refreshed and capable of anything.

“Now that we’re in the playoffs, I feel like we can take a breath and take some of the stress off,” Rhodes told Kickin’ the Tires. “We’re reset now, and I feel like it’s a big advantage for us – take a breath of fresh air and shake off the heat of the summer heat. We can relax, go to some of these cooler races in the fall and enjoy it.

“We’re in eighth-place, we can only go up from here.”

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