By David Morgan, Associate Editor
AVONDALE, Ariz. – As the laps were winding down in Friday night’s Lucas Oil 150 at Phoenix Raceway, Ben Rhodes could see the championship slipping away and he wasn’t going to settle for second place.
Setting his sights on championship rival Zane Smith, Rhodes was a man on a mission, chewing up the ground between himself and Smith to catch up to the rear bumper of Smith’s No. 21 Chevrolet. After a bump in Turn 3 with nine laps to go, Rhodes sent Smith up the track, allowing him to be able to skate by and reassume the championship lead.
From then on it was all Rhodes, as he finished the race in third place, but more importantly finished the highest among the four championship contenders to earn the right to hoist the Truck Series trophy over his head at the end of the night.
“That was the hardest last 40 laps I think I have ever driven in my life,” Rhodes said of the charge to retake the lead. “I was doing things to the race car I probably shouldn’t have been doing, it was dumb, but I had everything to lose. And we brought it home and won it. I don’t even know what to say.
“This is crazy. Bookends for the season, I am so proud of my ThorSport Racing group. This wasn’t like a vision we had, right, everyone wants to win it, but you just don’t know, it’s so hard. I just can’t thank Duke and Rhonda (Thorson) enough. They are the reason I’m here tonight, Bombardier, Toyota, Menards, WileyX, we have so many people that help us, I can’t even talk right now I’m so excited.”
Rhodes didn’t come into the night as the favorite, but as one of the most consistent drivers all season long, he was in the right place at the right time to capitalize. Smith may have had the short run speed to pull away from the field early, but Rhodes was able to bide his time and his truck came to him, allowing him to pull the trigger and go for the title.
Thanks to a little liquid courage, Rhodes was able to celebrate his new title to his fullest, delivering one of the most entertaining post-race press conferences since Brad Keselowski won his championship back in 2012.
“Libations are good. Championships are awesome,” Rhodes said before giving an inebriated deep dive on his charge to pass Smith for the championship lead.
“I watched Zane Smith and all these people drive away from me and I was freaking out on the inside because we had radio issues and I couldn’t talk to them. So, I was like, really angry. I was pissed. Pissed.
“Here’s how this went down. I said ‘Zane Smith, this is checkers or wreckers. I’m going to blow the motor trying to wreck you,’ (imitates shifting action). I made it up to him because he had some lapped traffic. I thought I didn’t have any tire left because I was sideways after every corner. You know what? I had some tire left. Those other people started slowing down.
“I was like, ‘Wow. This is crazy.’ I passed him and Sheldon Creed tried to get all funky with me, and I said ‘Ain’t happening mamajamma. Bye bye.’ I want around him on the outside in the resin and said goodbye. I thought I could maybe catch the 52 if I had more laps, but I wasn’t worried about it. Third place is cool with me, because I got the championship.
“You know what? A championship is cool.”
While Rhodes was ecstatic with his championship win, Smith could be found on the opposite side of the spectrum. Sitting down on pit wall after the race, a dejected Smith was left wondering what could have been, especially facing an uncertain future.
Friday night’s fifth place marked the second straight year that Smith had made it to the Championship 4, only to end the night as the runner-up in the points standings.
“It’s been a wild year,” Smith said. “I don’t know which one hurt more, last year or this one. We fired off good, honestly probably too good. Just got way, way too tight. Tried everything from inside the truck, all the tools I had. Nothing would help. So, just couldn’t really hold him off.”
Friday night’s race looked to be over before it even started for championship favorite John Hunter Nemechek when early race contact cut down his left front tire, dropping him all the way to 35th place on the leaderboard, two laps off the pace.
Despite the setback, Nemechek made a valiant charge back to the top-10, ending the race in seventh place, but just ran out of time to be able to chase down Smith and Rhodes to challenge them for the title. Even with the damage his truck sustained, Nemechek noted that he still had one of, if not the fastest truck on the track and had he gotten a late race caution, would have been right back in the mix for the championship.
“Had one of the fastest trucks tonight,” Nemechek said. “Just nothing to show for it. Pretty disappointing when somebody runs into you getting into Turn 1 and ruins your night. Got the fence, somebody cleaned out the left side, and pretty much destroyed the truck.
Just couldn’t ever get our lap back. I feel like if we would have gotten it back sooner, we would have had an even better shot. Just needed more laps there at the end. I was running down Zane and Ben there quite a bit. Just frustrating.
The fourth championship driver in Friday night’s race, Matt Crafton, finished the race in 12th place after fighting a loose handling truck throughout the event.
“We really fought free off all night,” Crafton said of his handling woes. “Really free off, center off. Never really could get ahold of it for whatever reason. I’m excited for Ben (Rhodes), Duke and Rhonda (Thorson), everybody over there. This Menards Toyota Tundra – we qualified well, I mean, decent. I was really worried about that because every time we qualify decent here, we don’t race good. All-in-all, regroup, head to Daytona – go to 2022.”
Even though his aspirations to win a fourth Truck Series championship to pull even with NASCAR Hall of Famer Ron Hornaday, Jr. weren’t met, Crafton was still beaming with pride that a ThorSport Racing truck was able to bring home the trophy.
“That kid has come a long ways,” Crafton said of Rhodes. “He didn’t listen for quite a few years and he finally listened. That’s why I went and hugged him and told him good job. I always told him, you’ve got to be there at the end and just don’t screw up.
“He’s always had speed. I always believed he’d be able to win races and win championships if we could get him to slow down. It’s a lot easier to slow them down than speed them up.”