By: Ashley McCubbin
Outside of a single race this season, Ben Rhodes has started his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series title defense in style with just one finish outside of the top-five. Coming off a victory on the dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway, the ThorSport Racing driver shared his thoughts with NEWS FROM THE PITS.
ASHLEY MCCUBBIN: I want to touch upon Bristol first. Take us through the final run to the checkered, the move to get the lead and win.
BEN RHODES: Well, I guess it really started for me with the restart knowing we were restarting in fourth-place. I knew the high-side was the best spot for us, but when you’re back in the pack, you can’t get your momentum going and it gets dusty out there. Knowing I was fourth on the restart, I knew I could get going, get to the top, and avoid the dust. So I was cautiously optimistic about it, but didn’t want to get too much and get over confident about it.
Once the green flag dropped, I was on it, going to drive it in as deep as the truck would let, maybe even more than it would let, so I could get a nose ahead of Carson (Hocevar). I just wanted to get the nose ahead of him so I could have the high-side. I couldn’t ever get a nose ahead of him on the high-side, so coming off of four, I just had to duck low and commit as hard as I could to a slide job, and luckily it worked out okay. I knew he dove it in low and trying to be defensive, and as the trucks yawed out a little bit, I felt my right rear brush his nose.
It was close. It was definitely an aggressive move.
ASHLEY: What are your thoughts going into the weekend at Darlington?
BEN: I think Darlington is going to be one of those races where we have a lot more to lose than gain. Both my crew chief and I talked about it last night – let’s both go to Darlington of maintaining. Let’s go there saying we’ll take what the race will give us, but not put ourselves in a position where we’re going to get in trouble. If our truck is in the top-five all day, that’s phenomenal. If we’re running 15th, we’re running 15th and we’re not going to push it because we definitely have more to lose than most people.
We know our strengths and weaknesses. Darlington is one of those tracks where you can get into trouble quickly, and it’s funny because when I won at Darlington two years ago, my whole attitude was just to survive, ride around and survive, and just make it a quiet race for ourselves, and sure enough we go win the thing. So that’s kind of the similar philosophy for this one.
ASHLEY: What’s the toughest part of running a race weekend at Darlington?
BEN: I think the toughest part goes back to just keeping your nose clean, and not so much your nose, but putting it where it doesn’t belong and causing accidents. It’s really about keeping a level head. You can get yourself in trouble so easily there. I don’t think I’ve ever been to another track where I’ve had so many closed calls, and it’s not because I’m trying to make some aggressive move on somebody – it’s because the track is just so bloody tough.
They did repave turn two, and that has made the exit a little easier, but doesn’t make it less challenging to get into a wreck. It does in a sense that you can hit your marks with a little more clarity and see the wall a little bit better. You still have as many close calls coming off the corner. So the toughest part for me as a driver is just telling myself to just calm down, don’t go really hard, and just see what will come our way. Typically as a driver, you’re trying to charge as hard as you can and take what you can get, but Darlington seems to be opposite philosophy for me.
ASHLEY: How would you grade your season so far?
BEN: I would give ourselves an A. The reason for not an A+ is just because of Las Vegas. I don’t know what we could’ve done specifically at Las Vegas to avoid getting in that wreck on the frontstretch. I don’t think there’s anything that we could have done to avoid it, but that’s what hinders me from giving us an A+. If we didn’t have that incident at Las Vegas, the season would be an A+ and I say we would be 70 points into the lead if we just finished in the top-five which I feel we could’ve done.
The season could’ve been a killer knock-out season at this point. It’s still a great season, but I look at that one point as a black dot on our year that I wish didn’t exist. I don’t think we could’ve done anything – I was just along for the ride. Every other race this year we’ve finished in the top-five, led laps at nearly every race this year, a couple second-place finishes, a win, and I feel last year when we won the championship, we had two wins at this point and were leading the points.
But we’re in a better place now than we were last year – I really feel that and my crew chief feels that, too.
ASHLEY: You’ve been very consistent, but what do you feel you and the team need to improve upon?
BEN: I think to be better, one thing we could work on is just communication to stay ahead of the race track a little bit. I still think we’re hitting on all cylinders in regards to that, but it’s just something that’s a continuous process. I want to make sure neither of us are slipping or falling behind.
Everything else, I’ve been very happy with it. My crew has been unloading with very fast trucks. I have to be realistic even though I am not usually, and say we’re never going to have a perfect race truck, but they’ve been giving me fast trucks so I can’t complain. I know these Tundras are fast coming off the hauler, and they’re comfortable. If they’re top-five trucks, it’s on me to try and find my way to the win. They’re just doing everything right.
I just need to make sure through the summer stretch that I don’t make mistakes that get into a wreck. Obviously I had a mistake at Bristol where I missed pit road, and that could’ve been a really big problem. Luckily it wasn’t, but I always need to minimize my mistakes. I’m always working on that and so far, I see one and that was Bristol. We were able to overcome it, but I need to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
ASHLEY: You’ve been the champion for five months now. What is it like representing the sport as the defending champion?
BEN: I like it a lot. I don’t really want it to change, so I’m going to do everything in my power to win it again. I’m really enjoying the perks that come along with it. I am enjoying the momentum that you feel along your side. There’s an acceptance that comes along with it with your peers, which is nice. I always considered myself the black sheep or outcast before that, so it’s been nice to know we’ve been able to accomplish this.
It’s gratifying. It’s nice to know that we can do it. before that, there’s always that level of uneasiness and doubt in everybody’s mind – it was in my mind, but that you don’t really belong. I really want this, but I didn’t know. Then you win the championship and you’ve got the package, the blueprint. We’re following it now. We figured it out last year and we’re following the blueprint and we’re back on-track – I’d say even in a better spot. The blueprint is looking good. It’s holding up year-after-year now. I just have to make sure we don’t lose sight of that.
ASHLEY: So being the defending champion, does that put extra pressure on you to perform or relieve some of the pressure?
BEN: I think it relieved all the pressure for me. I feel any extra pressure at all. I can breathe easier. I feel everything is coming to me easier on the race track. I feel like my whole world has gotten better as a whole. Certainly a life changing experience. Now that I have it, I can’t live without it – and it’s funny. Before you win a championship, every race win is so special and important. But after you win a championship, race wins just seem like stepping stones to the championship.
Race wins to me don’t give me the thrill a championship does. Don’t get me wrong – I love winning races, and I’d love to win every single race, but it’s changed my perspective on winning a little bit. I don’t see it as a monumental thing anymore. I just see it as a stepping stone to get to the next big trophy given out at the end of the year.
ASHLEY: What’s your favorite moment from your championship campaign?
BEN: Favorite moment was definitely Phoenix, but if I have to consider the whole season, I really enjoyed our wins at Daytona. The first week was really cool, the second week was even better on the road course. I mean, I had an absolute blast with that. Those were two solid weeks of a lot of fun – awesome memories, something I won’t forget. But there’s nothing that beats the elation and joy of a championship, so anytime anybody asks me about that, I’m going to think about the championship.