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Truckin’ Thursdays: Ben Rhodes Talks Cup Debut at Sonoma, Truck Success

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Ben Rhodes is having a damn good 2021.

With two wins already this season, Rhodes sits second in NASCAR Camping World Truck Series points with an average start of 6.2 and an average finish of 6.3 in the No. 99 Toyota for ThorSport Racing. He’s finished outside the top 10 only once, a 16th-place effort at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

His year got even better this week as Rhodes was announced to make his NASCAR Cup Series debut this Sunday (June 6) at Sonoma Raceway in the No. 77 Chevrolet for Spire Motorsports.

Rhodes sat down with Frontstretch this week to discuss his debut in NASCAR’s highest echelon, why making this start with Spire is more meaningful, whether he’d like to advance through NASCAR’s ladder to the Cup Series and more in the edited interview below:

Zach Sturniolo, Frontstretch: How meaningful is it for you to be able to say, “Hey, I’m starting a NASCAR Cup Series race,” especially at Sonoma Raceway, a road course of all places?

Ben Rhodes: Well, it’s definitely a feather in the cap to have that on Racing Reference that I competed in a Cup race now so I can say I’ve done all three series, which will be really cool. But obviously, as a racecar driver, you want to win in all three series. So that’s just those progressions hopefully will be down the way. But I’m excited. This is gonna be a lot of fun. And getting back with with the folks at Spire, it just feels like a natural progression for me, just with the simple fact that I’ve worked with these people. Kevin Bellicourt was my crew chief in 2016 at ThorSport. I worked with him and known him since 2013 (Bellicourt has been suspended for the race due to a lug nut penalty after the Coke 600). Then the interior guy used to be my engine guy here at ThorSport Racing. So I know a lot of people here and it’s kind of like a homecoming in the sense that I’ve worked with them. For so long, we’ve been working in different areas of the sport, so I hadn’t got to be around too much and spend a lot of time with them. But this is an opportunity for us to all see each other again, work together and just have some fun.

Sturniolo: How did you get connected with Spire in the first place so many years ago and what have they meant to your career?

Rhodes: Yeah, so back before Spire had a race team, Spire Sports + Entertainment, they (took) me under their wing as a young guy, an outsider to the sport — just a kid from Kentucky just trying to make it. And they taught me what the sport is and the business dealings that go on and people I need to know and watch out for and they introduced us to all kinds of different folks. And one of those people they introduced me to was Duke Thorson. So they helped lead me to my home where I’m at now. I don’t know that I would have been here with without them making that introduction, and obviously super happy that they did because Duke and Rhonda have been so, so good to me. They give me the opportunity to go out and win these races. And we’re competing for a championship this year. So spire has been good, and I’ve known them since 2013. [That meeting] was big for me just because I was making my my first [ARCA Menards Series East] start actually that weekend at Bristol and we really kicked it off and from there. […] A lot of good things came from from that early relationship, and now to bring it all back together is pretty cool.

Sturniolo: Can you take me through what it’s been like for you this season? It seems this season is really starting to be a career-high for you. You’ve got the two wins, you’re second in  points right now, average finish of sixth. It seems like everything’s going your way and especially now that you get to make your Cup debut this weekend. Can you put into words what this what the season has been like for you?

Rhodes: The season has been fun. Like really fun. The most fun I’ve had in a racecar in a long time. And I give a lot of credit for that to my crew chief Rich Lushes this year. He put a really good group of guys together at ThorSport, and Rich and I just hit it off really well. That’s the truth is that we work together well. We bounce ideas off each other. We had this conversation before, he says, “I don’t care how we fix it. I don’t care if you get out and turn a wrench or do whatever you want to do. I don’t care how we fix it. Just, let’s fix the truck. Let’s keep getting better and making it right.”

And he’s really, really smart with these things. He understands these Tundras. And for me as a driver, I think what makes a good driver/crew chief combo is me having a little bit of knowledge but not everything. I just have a little bit of knowledge. I know what direction I need to go to. I can point to them and then he’s the expert. He turns the screws down and gets it dialed in nice. And I’ve got to say they’ve done a really good job with that. They develop their own setups this year — stuff that I’ve never done at racetracks, and I’ve worked with four or five different crew chiefs — and it’s making the difference for me. That and being back with Toyota.

A lot of good things in the works here at ThorSport. And I think, as we’re developing, you’re gonna see it’s just getting better and better. We’ve got five top-three finishes out of 10 races now, and our bad races were really 10th places. We have one that was a 16th because of an issue on a pitstop and we fixed all that. Since then, we haven’t finished outside the top 10. So we’re hitting the goals that we want to hit, and we’re doing all the things that we want to do. Now, we just got to get a couple more wins, so we can get those stage points and those playoff points. And if we can do that, and we’ll have a really, really good chance to make it to Phoenix.

READ
Frontstretch Podcast: Ben Rhodes Explains His Hot Start, William Byron's Homestead Win

Sturniolo: How would you rate yourself as a road course racer? You got the win back at the Daytona International Speedway road course in February, but that’s a much different course than what you’re going to face this weekend at Sonoma.

Rhodes: I would give myself an A — not an A-plus because I can always get better. I know I can get better. But I think I’m doing an okay job at braking, I felt like braking is huge at road courses. To me, the braking is more important than anything on a road course. And I feel like the braking for me has really become something I’ve gotten a lot better at in recent times. … I’m definitely not the best there is, but I don’t think I’m the worst either and I’m constantly trying to get better at it because it’s not natural for me. I had transitioned to this style of racing and this type of discipline. It’s different. I grew up on the short tracks where if you want it to turn better, you stab some brake to it. On these road courses, if you want it to turn better, well, you got to slow up a little bit more and then figure out how to not be on the brake, but still keep it down on the nose. And there’s just different things you work on. […]

But the more I’m around road courses, I’ve noticed a habit or rhythm develop. I seem to be better the second time I go to the road course. The good news is going to Sonoma, I’ve already been there once now on an open track day. Once I found out I was going to be racing there, I said I need to get some lap time so that the second time I go there, I’m good.

Sturniolo: What were you able to get out there in for that track day?

Rhodes: Nothing crazy. It was actually a Mazda Miata. But minus the horsepower, we had some good speeds in the corners. I was pretty happy with the track time honestly. I ran basically the entire length of a Cup race in that thing, and I was on the track non-stop for the entire day. You can’t really do that in some of these other racecars that you would try to go to get a track day in, and I was able to do that in that Miata. So I was really, really happy with that.

By the time I ended, I felt very confident, very comfortable, and it slowed down a lot for me. So by the end of the day, I was running a lot quicker lap times than how I started, and it was the heat of the day and should have been the slowest track.

Sturniolo: Where do you set the expectations for yourself this weekend? What what would constitute a good weekend for you?

Rhodes: I really don’t have expectations for myself. To be honest, I’m not even setting any because I just felt like that puts unnecessary pressure. For me, I can tell you on lap 10. If you can call in on the radio on lap 10, I can tell you what the expectations would be then. And the reason I say that is I’m filling in right for Justin Haley. My job for this weekend for them is to finish the race with no damage to the car with the maximum points day, the maximum winnings, maximum finish for the day as possible. So, for me, that’s going to be maximizing the finish, and I don’t know what that’s gonna be until I hop in the car. So it could be a 30th-place car; it could be a 15th-place car, I don’t know. But hopefully it’ll be the latter and we can run up front with some good folks.

I noticed that 77 car for Spire in general has been getting a lot better. Their progression from the start of being a team to now has been pretty impressive, and they do a lot with what they have. And I think that speaks volumes of their organization and the people they have. You look at COTA and before they had a part break, Justin (Haley) was running up front. He was in the top 20, top 15, and in their equipment, that’s pretty good. So I don’t know what the expectations are, but I am very, very glad that this is an opportunity at a road course.

I feel, hands down, much better about going into Sonoma and a road course in one of these cars than I do going into Charlotte or Daytona or somewhere like that. I feel way better about a road course than anywhere else. It’s interesting, even though I’ve never been there.

Sturniolo: I assume that’s because you feel like a lot more is in your hands at a road course than a mile-and-a-half?

Rhodes: Yeah, I do. And it’s gonna be hectic. It’s gonna be very hectic. I know these guys are going to try to force you off off the track, I know they’re gonna put me in places I don’t want to be. But at the same time, I don’t have expectations. If I get in a bad spot, these are a lot longer races than the trucks, and I’ve found my way from the back to the front multiple times in truck races, and they’re a lot shorter. That gives me confidence, though, in my background, that I come from short races, I’ve got all the time in the world this weekend. If I’ve got to back out of a spot, so be it. It’s not like we’re running for the stage points. I can use pretty much the whole first stage just to learn if I want and then take the last two stages and dice my way through the field.

Sturniolo: Do you still have aspirations of competing full-time in Xfinity or Cup? You mentioned that you’ve got a home right now with ThorSport in the Truck Series. But do you still have those aspirations? And what needs to happen to get to that point if so?

Rhodes: I’ve got aspirations of winning, whether that’s Trucks, Xfinity, Cup. I just want to win. And right now, ThorSport’s that, man. I’m running for a championship, we’ve got a couple wins, and the way I look at it is I can focus inward on my deal and go win races, or I can focus outward and be distracted. So I haven’t pursued anything. I’ve got no real intentions to pursue anything, and if opportunities come my way, Duke’s pretty much first to know. I go to him about all kinds of stuff.

I love the relationship that we have. It’s been fun to see the progress I’ve had here and the relationships I’ve developed, so I haven’t focused outward at all. [Do I have] aspirations to run there? Yeah, I would love to run more Cup races, right? But I have a very hard time leaving ThorSport. It would have to be a crazy good opportunity and obviously with Duke’s blessing if I would ever do anything like that.

So no, I haven’t looked outside, haven’t really put any thought into it. To be honest, this whole [Cup] deal caught me completely off guard. I was not looking, didn’t think about any opportunities. When I started the year, I was just 100% focused on trucks, just happy to be racing. This is just a fun opportunity and a cool opportunity and I’m gonna get some experience.

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