It’s not often you hear NASCAR drivers counting down the days to one of the most dangerous races of the season, Talladega, a track built on hallowed grounds in Southern Alabama, known for frantic finishes, and first-time winners, many drivers dread going to the restrictor plate track.
But it’s an opportunity for drivers to showcase their talent, especially when they haven’t been in a car all season long.
Ben Kennedy is entering a stretch of nine races when he will be in Richard Childress Racing’s No. 2 Chevrolet, the first race coming at Talladega Superspeedway on May 6. The other races he will be piloting the No. 2 car are at Iowa Speedway (June 24), Daytona International Speedway (June 30), New Hampshire Motor Speedway (July 15), Iowa (July 29), Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (Aug. 12), Road America (Aug. 27), Kentucky Speedway (Sept. 23) and Homestead-Miami Speedway (Nov. 18).
Last season, Kennedy finished seventh in the Camping World Truck Series points, winning at Bristol Motor Speedway in August. Coming off his playoff appearance, not strapping into a vehicle for the first two months of the season has made things that much tougher.
“It’s definitely been challenging,” Kennedy told Frontstretch during a phone interview. “It’s been challenging just watching the races to be honest. You want to be at the track and in the thick of things. That part has been difficult. But I’ve stayed pretty busy on simulators and just trying to keep the rust off as much as I can so when we hit Talladega and the rest of the races that we are ready to go.”
In his down time, Kennedy has remained busy by spending time with the K&N Series Pro East Series organization that he owns. He also participated in an episode of “American Ninja Warrior,” which will be televised in June. But he knew that the decision to join RCR for nine races was the right one to make career-wise.
“It was such an awesome opportunity that I really couldn’t pass it up,” Kennedy said. “We locked this down, and we’re working on more races too. Don’t be surprised if we’re doing more than just those nine races. My goal this year is to get as much seat time as I can in the car and get away from the trucks and the downforce, and start learning these tracks and vehicles all over again.”
Prior to the season, Kennedy had other offers to run in different series, and in different vehicles. But to him, this one made the most sense, even though there was an opportunity to go racing in the Cup Series.
“I honestly had a bunch of different options over the off-season in every series,” he said. “There were all sorts of stuff and it was pretty unbelievable. Richard and the guys at RCR approached me in November or December and we kind of started the conversations. One thing led to another and it was such a good opportunity to be in the No. 2 car with Justin Alexander and all those guys that I couldn’t say no to it.
“Obviously, my goal is to get to the Cup Series, but you really only have one shot to make it to the Cup Series, and I want to be ready for it physically, mentally, experience-wise. In my gut, I felt that I wasn’t ready for it to take that step. I went where my gut led me and that was to this XFINITY program and try to get more seat time.”
Kennedy has made one career XFINITY Series start, coming last June at Iowa where he finished 10th for RCR. Throughout the weekend, he was among the fastest cars, sitting atop the leader board in the pair of practice sessions.
Since making the move from GMS Racing to RCR, Kennedy has gained some valuable knowledge from some of the Cup Series drivers on the race team. Austin Dillon and Paul Menard will both split time in the No. 2 car, so he tries to take in everything they tell him, admitting he’s taken the most away from conversations with Menard.
“It’s good to bounce ideas off him (Menard) and he has a ton of experience in Cup and obviously has a lot of talent,” he said. “To be able to bounce ideas off of Paul, and him also being in the XFINITY car and working with this team and working with Justin (Alexander, crew chief), it helps a lot.
The goal for the No. 2 team is to win the XFINITY Series Owner’s Championship. Through six races, the No. 2 car sits 10th in the owner standings, 104 points off the lead, which the No. 22 car for Team Penske holds.
Dillon has piloted the machine for five of the first six events, finishing a season-high third at Daytona. He has three other top-10 finishes, while Menard’s only start came at Auto Club Speedway, where he finished 36th, after being clipped by Erik Jones down the frontstretch, leading to a fiery crash.
When it’s Kennedy’s turn to strap in, he realizes his expectations might be a bit different from those two, but expects to be competitive.
“I definitely want to spend the first two or three races learning these cars,” Kennedy said. “I’m not going to put too much pressure on myself at the end of the day, but at the same time I want to go out and perform and prove my skills and talent to get to the next level or spend more time in XFINITY.”