By David Morgan, Associate Editor
AVONDALE, Ariz. – Ben Rhodes and Thorsport Racing rolled the dice Friday night at Phoenix Raceway, but ultimately came up one spot short in their bid for a second straight NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship.
Of the four championship contenders, Rhodes’ No. 99 Toyota Tundra just didn’t quite have the speed to compete with others, but when the caution flag flew on lap 135, the team saw an opportunity to shake things up and went for it.
Electing to take two tires instead of four like the rest of the Championship 4, Rhodes went from the worst of the drivers battling for the title to the best of them in third place, while the others were buried from eighth on back with some ground to make up to get back in the fight.
Rhodes was able to advance to the lead shortly after the restart, followed by Zane Smith, Chandler Smith, and Ty Majeski, who had muscled their way through traffic to make it 1-2-3-4 among the Championship 4 with less than five laps to go.
However, the hard racing between the championship contenders led to Majeski going for a spin on lap 148, which brought out the caution once more and set up and overtime restart.
Prior to Majeski’s spin, Rhodes was holding his own against Zane Smith, but the overtime restart would ultimately be his undoing.
Zane lined up directly behind Rhodes on the restart, allowing him to utilize Phoenix’s wide apron in the dogleg, which he executed to perfection to surpass Rhodes and take over the lead.
Though Rhodes and Chandler Smith tried to fight back against Zane Smith’s onslaught, they would be denied as Zane won the race to secure his first series championship and Rhodes would have to settle for a runner-up finish.
“I don’t know, two tires versus four, that was the name of the game,” Rhodes said. “We didn’t have the pace all night that we needed to be up there and repeat so it was a great heads-up call by my crew chief.
“Ultimately, we just didn’t need that last caution. I think we could have held them off for the final few laps. I was giving him (Zane Smith) all the dirty air he could handle. I think we were going to be fine until that caution got us.
“On that last restart, I tried to get a jump, but two tires versus four, I just didn’t have the grip I needed. I did the best I could and threw a move on him, but didn’t have enough grip to make it stick. All in all, I’m proud of my Kubota Toyota Tundra team and everyone at ThorSport Racing.
“We just need to go back and do our homework and second is not fun. I’m going to mope my way back to Kentucky.”
Despite the disappointment of coming so close to winning another championship, Rhodes noted that his team has the ability to rebound from Friday’s loss, regroup over the offseason, and be right back in the battle for another title this time next year.
“I think the team has the ability to dive deep and show up when it matters,” Rhodes said. “We needed more consistency throughout the regular season and just in general. We’ve got to work on more raw speed and consistency.
“But the fact that the team can have the foresight so make awesome calls and to put me in position when it matters for us to try to come in clutch, I think that’s huge.
“They don’t quit, and I don’t quit. We’re just going to keep doing that and work on the other stuff in the meantime and hopefully have a little more consistency next year.”
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