By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – ThorSport Racing’s Ben Rhodes is entering his fourth season in the NASCAR Gander Outdoor Truck Series, and once again, changes are the norm with his team as they went through a complete overhaul, including another number change. No longer its the No. 41 Ford F-150, which upset some fans as it’s now the No. 99 instead. All thanks to an initiative by owner Duke Thorson to maintain continuity on his five-truck operation.
Rhodes told Motorsports Tribune that at a young age, he was superstitious on what kind of racing numbers he has, but is 100% supportive on this latest number change despite what the fans feel about the decision.
“I guess as a younger driver, I was kind of aware of my numbers and really had superstitions about what numbers I had. I feel like now that I’m pretty relaxed with the whole deal,” said Rhodes. “I’m happy to be racing with ThorSport and the No. 99 was an initiative by them to just make the team as a whole, more consistent. They did all of this in a way to be more uniformed, and I fully support it.
“I hate that some of the fans are a little bit upset by it, but I think they’ll tend to find that as the season goes on, the No. 99 will grown on them and it’s already been growing on me. I think the truck is spectacular, so that’s going to help.”
Rhodes is part of a diverse squad of bright stars, such as 2018 Rookie of the Year Myatt Snider, who’s running a partial schedule, and fifth-place points finisher Grant Enfinger. Then there’s the established champions like senior driver and two-time series champion Matt Crafton, and the returning Johnny Sauter, who announced Tuesday that he’ll be back with ThorSport.
With these changes in and out of the No. 99 camp, Rhodes has grown over the years and having the core of teammates has brought bigger confidence that the top Ford squad will come out of the gate strong.
“Our race team has really matured over the years just in the sense of experience,” said Rhodes. “This is going to be my fourth year, Grant’s on his third, and then you have Myatt and Johnny. We’re really looking to just elevate the team as a whole this year. We’ve brought a lot of new people onboard. Johnny and his crew chief are great additions. They’ve been at ThorSport Racing once before, but they’ve gained wealth of knowledge at GMS Racing, and we’re hoping they can bring some of that knowledge over and hopefully it lead us on the right traction on some of the things we need to improve on.
“I got pretty much all new people on my race team. New crew chief, new spotter, new everything. I really feel like this could be a turning point in my career where we can have more on track success. I know that they’ve brought a whole lot of fresh ideas and new culture and attitude to the team. I’m excited for it and the most excited I’ve have been to get the season started in a long while.”
Over the past few races at Daytona, the big one has struck in different parts. Recent instances such as the 2017 race, where it happened on the second lap, and last season took place later in the final stage.
The two-time series winner stated that he would rather have it occur late in the going but is concerned that the large number of inexperience drivers may result impatient moves throughout the 100-lap race.
“I would rather be it that way and wait at the end,” said Rhodes. “It’d be a shame to wad stuff up on Lap 2, but the field this year is pretty inexperienced, looking at the entry blank. It can be a little bit of impatience and inexperience that causes it.
“If you look at it, a lot of the wrecks that originate here comes from not knowing when to push or hitting bumpers at the right time or trying to side draft and a little bit greedy. I feel like it’ll come from inexperience early on and that’ll come from trying to push in the tri-oval, entry or exit of the corner, and to me those are no touch spots. You just can’t do that, and I was very easy early on to make sure that I never did. As I’ve learned, I now have a good understanding what I can do, but some people are aggressive their first time here.”
With the 2017 shutdown of Brad Keselowski Racing, and suddenly switching from Toyota, where ThorSport won both of it’s championships with Crafton, to Ford at the last minute, there was some growing pains in 2018. While Rhodes scored career-highs in both top-five (8) and top-10 (13) categories, he ended up last among the playoff drivers.
Rhodes explained that this season, the blue oval brand will provide additional support, and the entire ThorSport team has spent the off season preparing their trucks for a great campaign.
“The big thing for us this season is the support of Ford has really been able to ramp up because we had all last season to get through the bugs and to work stuff out,” said Rhodes. “Last year we kind of sprung into the relationship with Ford and transitioned close to Daytona and threw everybody for a loop, and we were doing everything we could while we were in the busy season of the actual racing on the track, trying to get the trucks dialed in and getting information, and it was a challenge.
“We had all of the off season now and we’re very well prepared. Really good backing and I feel like you’re going to see a strong season at ThorSport Racing, and a lot of it is gonna come just from the support that we have.”
Outside of ThorSport, there are only three other Ford drivers (Spencer Davis, Corey Roper and Austin Theriault) entered to run Friday’s NextEra Energy Resources 250. Rhodes added that Ford is pushing an agenda of having all of its drivers working together, and by doing so, it can further help the entire group to get more financial support in the future.
“There is a big push with Ford to make them all work together,” Rhodes continued. “If they’re happy, we’re happy, and the happier they are, the more support they’re going to give us. It’s our job as a team and as drivers to make sure that we’re fully listening to them and doing exactly what they want because at the end of the day a lot of the funding in our sport, comes from the manufacturers.
“We’re going to do everything we can to work with the Fords on the race track. With five trucks at ThorSport, there’s no reason we can’t be one through five. That’s enough trucks to make a small pack here, and to have really good speed.”