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From Louisville with Love, Part I: Ben Rhodes Talks Playoffs, 2 Weeks with Junior Joiner & Kentucky Travels

Frontstretch’s Truck Series content is presented by American Trucks

Ben Rhodes is on pace for a career year in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series. With three races left in the season, the fifth-year driver has already tied his career high in top fives and needs only one more top 10 to tie his career high in that category. His average finish is at 10.0, just a tick below his career-high 9.9 average finish in 2018.

More importantly, Rhodes is in the playoffs’ Round of 8 after missing the playoffs entirely last season and failing to advance past the first round in the year prior. He has a chance to make it to the Championship 4 for the first time in his career, although those chances took a huge hit this past weekend at Kansas Speedway. 

After starting second, Rhodes dropped back in the pack due to being loose and a lack of speed. That’s when he got caught up in a wreck and ended up getting penalized two laps for having too many men over the wall while on the crash clock. He finished 20th, putting him 33 points below the cutline, which is difficult but not impossible to overcome without a win. But to do so, he’ll likely have to beat out his ThorSport Racing teammates Matt Crafton and Grant Enfinger

Rhodes caught up with Frontstretch prior to the Kansas race for a two-part From Louisville with Love feature. In this part, Rhodes discusses the pros and cons of his season, being crew chief Matt Noyce’s first full-time Truck driver, battling his teammates for the Championship 4 and what racing is like when you’re eliminated from the playoffs. He also reveals how a championship dynasty was briefly broken up and details life as the lone Kentucky resident in the Truck Series during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Michael Massie, Frontstretch: You’ve already tied your career high in top fives and you only need one more top 10 to tie that career high. Why has the performance been better this season?

Ben Rhodes: I wouldn’t say that we necessarily have the speed to say our performance has been better. But we’ve just been more consistent as a whole. I definitely think we’ll break my career high, which is nice to know. Our goal this year was to not finish outside the top 10 at all for any of the races, so we obviously didn’t hit that. We try to set realistic goals for ourselves. If we didn’t think we could do it, we wouldn’t have set that as a goal with what we know we have going on within our program and with the level of competition that we have. Obviously, everybody wants to win every single championship, lead every lap, win every race, but that’s just not a realistic thing to say. But finishing in the top 10 every single race is.

We didn’t hit that, but we’ve been consistent this year, and we’ve really been trying to limit mistakes made. Obviously, we’ve had some mistakes, and that’s what’s kept us out of the top 10 for every race.

But I will say that we’ve done a really good job this year limiting that compared to our 2019 season. 2019, we gave up a lot of good finishes, to be quite frank about it. And I think the playoffs are really going to come down to who doesn’t make mistakes. And I’ve told my team several times, ‘If we could stay focused here, don’t make any mistakes … We just need to go out and perform and let everybody else take themselves out.’ And we can be in the final four pretty easy if we can do that.

Massie: ThorSport and GMS Racing comprise seven of the eight teams left. Have there been any conversations from the ThorSport leadership, Duke and Rhonda or anyone else, to you drivers and teams about making sure a ThorSport truck wins it?

Rhodes: The only thing better than three out of eight would’ve been four out of eight. I feel bad that Johnny [Sauter] couldn’t join us. But no, we didn’t have any discussions about that. Everybody at ThorSport, at least in the crew chief/driver position, is very, very experienced. That all comes from the length of time ThorSport has been around. This is their 25th season. They’ve got [General Manager] David Pepper, who’s been around forever. We’ve got crew chiefs that have been around forever.

The only exception to that would be my crew chief and I guess myself. My crew chief being the most inexperienced in his position, myself being the second most inexperienced in my position at ThorSport. But we all know what we’ve got to do. We know that we need to take care of one another, and we know that in the final four, there needs to be four ThorSport trucks.

Now, that’s easier said than done, because I have a feeling we’re going to be fighting over positions at some point. It’s just the way it usually goes, and that’s not taking a knock at any one race team. I guess that’s Murphy’s Law, if something can happen, it’s going to happen. If there’s an opportunity to fight over a position in the playoffs, then we’re going to be battling each other for points for one position in the playoffs. That’s typically how things go in racing. I’m not too worried about it, but we’re not going to intentionally make it harder on one another. In fact, we’re going to make it easier on one another, and we’re going to make it a lot harder on our competition.

Massie: Speaking of your crew chief Matt Noyce, I know he worked with Jesse Little in Trucks and in ARCA East and West with a few drivers, but where did he come from and how did he get synced up with you?

Rhodes: Funny story is he was actually supposed to be Matt Crafton’s crew chief at one time. Junior Joiner was my crew chief for about two weeks during the winter of 2018-19. We talked, had some great conversations, things were going well, he’s working on the truck and then, boom out of nowhere, we swapped back, and then I had Matt Noyce. That was the first time I’d really talked to him was on the phone. We talked a little bit at the ThorSport Christmas party prior to that but nothing really in depth.

Once that happened, I made a quick trip up to Sandusky, and we had some conversations and kind of evaluated where we were at as a race team with different trucks and different people. It was kind of a big shakeup.

He’s a good guy though. He’s been learning a lot. I was his first full-time driver ever in a NASCAR national series. I was thrilled to be that for him, but at the same time, I knew that he had some learning to do and I had some learning to do. We had to learn each other, and I had to do everything I could to help his transition into the series be easy. Because at that point, I’d raced at all the racetracks and I’ve seen all the racetracks, and there were still racetracks he had never seen before. So I was doing everything I could as a driver to make it easy for him, and I hope I did. And he was doing everything he could as a crew chief to learn and pick people’s brains.

I will give him a lot of credit, in 2020, he’s done a really good job with that. He’s given me consistent trucks at places he may not have a huge notebook … He’s at a significant disadvantage going to racetracks that other people have been going to for 20 years and have a 20-year notebook to pull from. He’s got a one-year notebook to pull from, so he’s been going to a lot of our teammates and working with them. He’s done a really good job of that this year, and it shows with the stats.

Massie: That’s crazy that the dream team of Crafton and Junior Joiner almost weren’t together for a third championship.

Rhodes: Yeah, so I look at that and I say, ‘Man, what could’ve been?’ I think it’s just an interesting topic to think about. … We still joke about that today. I still go up to him and go, ‘What’s up, crew chief?’ He’s like, ‘For two weeks, that’s the shortest gig I’ve ever had.’

Massie: You’ve lived both sides of it. How different is the approach and feeling at the racetrack this time of the season when you’re still in the playoffs versus when you’re not?

Rhodes: I’ll tell you that where we’re at right now, being in the playoffs, feels natural. It feels like the natural order of things. It feels like that’s how it’s supposed to be. But when you’re not in the playoffs, it’s devastating. Your world is crashing down, it feels like. You say you’re going to go to the racetrack and still get these wins, but really it’s about keeping the guys on your team motivated, happy and understanding that it may feel like the world is crashing around you, but we still have to go win races. We still have to go perform. Yeah, we didn’t hit our mark, but it’s going to be okay. We got hopefully next year together. And for the rest of the season, we need to do our job and we need to win.

So yeah, it’s definitely not a good feeling to be out the playoffs. I can’t think of a worse feeling in racing right now. Not making it to the final four is a huge heartbreak. I can’t tell you about the happiness of being in the final four, because that’s not happened to me yet. But I can tell you that’s a huge heartbreak to be outside of it. Especially to be outside the playoffs altogether.

I feel good about this season. In 2017 when we were in the Round of 6, in the final race, we were above the cutline. We were in the position we needed to be to transition to the final four when we got turned around by [Austin] Cindric, and that was just devastating. I can’t tell you what it’s like to be in the final four, but it’s got to be a good feeling. I hope in a few weeks we can talk about it and I can tell you what it feels like, but I don’t know right now.

Massie: You still live in Louisville, right?

Rhodes: Yep, still live in Louisville, Kentucky. I’ve been here all my life. I never moved. I guess I’m like Johnny Sauter in some ways, although Johnny had moved to North Carolina. I never moved away though.

Massie: What’s it been like commuting back and forth from there to racetracks and the ThorSport shop during the COVID-19 era?

Rhodes: A heck of a lot easier than it’s been for the guys that live in Charlotte. Matt Crafton and Grant Enfinger live in Charlotte, N.C., and Johnny lives in Wisconsin. Now, I don’t know about Johnny’s drive, but he has to go around Chicago, and I know that’s a pain in the butt. But Crafton and Grant have like an eight-hour drive to the shop. I’m five and a half [hours] if I don’t stop. So I’m a pretty quick drive. Most of the time I just hop in the truck and make sure it’s full, and I’m there in five hours. I’ve got a pretty easy drive there, and I’m centrally located to a lot of the racetracks, so I’m good for driving there.

But when COVID-19 hit, a lot of people are scared to travel, but I’ll tell you that they shouldn’t be. Actually, it’s easier, it’s cleaner than it’s ever been before. People can worry about catching COVID-19, but last time I checked, the flu and all these other diseases are still out there to catch. I don’t know if you can catch them on a flight right now. It is incredibly clean. From what I’ve seen and read, they’re doing complete air changes every two-three minutes on a flight. They wipe everything down before you get on there. When you get on, they hand you hand sanitizer packets and wipes to wipe everything down. Everyone has masks on. They’re doing everything they can to make it as clean, healthy and safe. They’re leaving seats open. So it’s actually more pleasant to fly now than ever before.

I was always kind of a clean freak in the airports because it’s so dirty and trafficked, and it’s just kind of gross. Now, it’s pretty clean, relatively speaking, so I’m thrilled about it.

Look for From Louisville with Love, Part II with Ben Rhodes on Saturday, Oct. 24 on Frontstretch.

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About Michael Massie

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Michael Massie is a writer for Frontstretch. Massie, a Richmond, Va. native, has been a NASCAR superfan since childhood, when he frequented races at Richmond International Raceway. Massie is a lover of short track racing and travels around to the ones in his region. Outside of motorsports, the Virginia Tech grad can be seen cheering on his beloved Hokies.