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It’s something no driver, especially one gunning for a first career win, wants to face.
But it’s exactly what happened to Ben Rhodes on Friday night at Kansas Speedway. after a spirited battle with Kyle Busch for the race lead, Rhodes took his No. 27 Toyota and pulled it ahead by more than one second. It was clearly his race to lose as he sailed toward the checkers, clicking off laps along the way. But the engine went up in smoke with just seven laps remaining, forcing Rhodes to the garage and a disappointing 23rd-place finish.
Clearly heartbroken, Rhodes pounded his fists on the steering wheel of his wounded machine as he drove to the garage. While the team worked frantically to identify the problem was had been so costly, Rhodes took a few minutes to compose himself while Busch sailed to the victory that he had lucked into.
As Rhodes emerged from the hauler, he appeared to be doing his best to keep his head up, despite the stinging loss when he had that first career victory right at his fingertips. At that moment, crew members from his team paused in their teardown tasks and approached their driver. Sharing in Rhodes’ disappointment, the team also offered words of encouragement, reminding him how well he ran. Even winning crew chief Kevin “Bono” Manion dropped by with his own well wishes and compliments. It was enough to bring a team of joy to your eyes, knowing just how close-knit this Truck Series garage really is.
In the moment, the words of encouragement did little to calm the frustration the sophomore driver was feeling.
“I’ve felt like this my whole life. It’s always been something through my racing career,” Rhodes lamented. “I know everybody says it’s never easy, but I’ve lost way more than I’ve ever won. It just seems like we can never overcome it. This whole season we’ve done everything right and we’ve contended for wins every single race.
“Something is always going wrong, and it’s not from [something] our team is doing. It’s just bad luck, so we just have to overcome this somehow.”
The loss stings particularly hard for ThorSport Racing too. The organization hasn’t seen Victory Lane since Charlotte last season, just about a month before the shop fire that caused significant damage to a large portion of its 100,000 square-foot facility. After spending a chunk of the latter half of the season bouncing around to any available spot to work on the trucks, ThorSport had made enough repairs to allow teams to once again prepare in the shop. And redemption from all of that hard work was just a few laps away.
The good news for Rhodes – and ThorSport – is they won’t have to wait long to move forward from the stinging defeat. The series descends on Charlotte Motor Speedway Friday night. And the No. 27 team has proven it has the speed to compete strongly, and win, on the mile-and-a-half tracks. Earlier this season, in the second race of the season, Rhodes finished fourth at the 1.5-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway, and he nearly won the next track of the same size last Friday night.
“Last year we struggled so much with the fire, and getting good equipment. Now we’ve finally rebuilt, and have good, consistent, equipment. We know what we have, and we went to the test last week and got better.
“I know that my teammate Matt Crafton won there last year. I know we had a really fast Safelite Tundra there in the practice session. I’m really excited about that; I get to go down there and be with a lot of friends and support during the week. That’s what you need.”
And if there was any question whether Kansas and the thought of what might have been could serve as a distraction, Rhodes is adamant “we’ve moved on from Kansas. You have to move forward if you expect to win a race.”
“We are actually having fun with it now. My crew chief has taken the ‘debris’ that went through the radiator and made a necklace out of it,” Rhodes said via team release. “He says it will be our good luck charm at Charlotte. Last week we proved that what we learned at the Charlotte test, all the hard work we put in, is enough to win a race with our Safelite Tundra. We plan to do just that at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Friday night.”
Perhaps the biggest takeaway for Rhodes leaving Kansas was what he was able to learn while racing Busch for the lead. Known as the master of restarts and a driver who wan pretty much stomp the field in the ground any time he climbs into a truck, Busch was forced to adjust his on-track actions as Rhodes adapted.
“Racing with Kyle (Busch) tonight for the lead was a dream come true,’ Rhodes said of the spirited battle. “It’s so cool to run with him like that because I’ve looked up to him my whole life. I was able to learn from him because like I said, he’s got more wins in XFINITY and Trucks than I have total stock car starts. It’s crazy that I was able to learn from such a guy.
“He played these games out there all night along and I was finally able to pick up on them – because I choked on them several times last year – now I was able to play a couple of games on him. I guess if there were any positives in this, that was it, I learned.”
“I started learning what he did in the second stage of the race,” Rhodes elaborated. “I pulled a couple games on him in the beginning, and I was able to swing past him on the outside. He learned from that and he played some games with me and made me go low. We battled and battled and battled him; we hung tough on the bottom, and by doing that, I learned from it and I was able to go into the third stage and make a clean pass because of that.
“Had he not done that, I don’t think I would have learned it and maybe not even have gotten past him. He is literally the best in the business at restarts, and this is probably the most restart sensitive restart track we go to all year.”
The bottom line is it’s just a matter of when, not if, Rhodes will find Victory Lane. You know when he makes it there, the party will be a big one, ad that win could come as early as Friday night in Charlotte.