Friday’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series season finale from the Phoenix Raceway didn’t end exactly how Ben Rhodes would have liked it to considering how his 2021 campaign concluded with hoisting the big trophy on the front stretch stage.
The 25-year-old entered the weekend as the Truck Series Championship 4 driver with the longest winless streak this year, with only a single victory which came on the dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway back in April.
Rhodes continued to get through the NCWTS Playoffs by points, which was a similar story to tell compared to a year ago.
“Well, we just fight, fight, fight, no matter what,” Rhodes said. “I’ve got that down. We just got to find some more speed and get the consistency when it matters throughout the regular season, that would help make our Playoffs a little bit easier or maybe spend some more time. That would allow us to spend some more time, and focus on maybe some R&D or sim stuff, for the most part. Again I’m proud of the fight, the tenacity, the grit in order to come in clutch when we need to, but I’d rather not be clutch all the time.”
For the majority of the Lucas Oil 150, Rhodes was solidly in the top 10 and typically he was within the top three of Championship 4 competitors. Eventual champion, Zane Smith was in a different ‘zip code’ as a fellow title contender, Chandler Smith labeled it.
In the second to last restart, Rhodes’ crew chief, Rich Lushes made a savvy two-tire pit call which gave the driver a chance to potentially win the race. However, there were 10 laps to go in the final stint of the race once the field took the green. And as the No. 99 ThorSport Racing Toyota Tundra only had two fresh tires, it was no match for Smith and a full set of fresh rubber on his Front Row Motorsports Ford.
As Smith traveled from outside the top 10 and ended up staring at the rear bumper of Rhodes before the final yellow flag came out on Friday, it appeared that Rhodes had no chance to defeat Smith.
The Overtime restart helped even the playing field for Rhodes, though. For multiple laps, Zane Smith stalled out and Rhodes was managing the minimal gap out front.
While ultimately, Smith got around Rhodes and was able to narrowly hold him off for the win, Rhodes was extremely happy with the strategy call from his crew chief.
“I don’t know, two tires versus four that was the name of the game,” he said. “We didn’t have the pace all night that we needed to be up there and compete. 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 all the dirty air behind until that caution just got us.”
For Rhodes, he just lacked the overall grip needed to have anything for Smith in the closing laps.
“I did what I could on the restart to try to get a jump, but with two tires versus four, I just didn’t have the grip I needed,” Rhodes explained. “I tried to hold them off the best I could and threw a move on him at the very end and just didn’t have enough grip to make it stick… we didn’t have the pace, but we got up there and that’s what matters at the end. We just got to go back and do our homework. Yeah, second is not fun, I am going to mope my way all the way back to Kentucky.”
Last season, it seemed that the Kentucky native was in the mix of championship favorites throughout the year with consistent finishes all year long. Fast forward to 2022, and Rhodes rode a different path to nearly the same result.
While 2022 was much more of an underwhelming type of campaign for Rhodes with 10 results outside the top 10, had he been able to hold on to the lead during the Overtime finish, Rhodes would have been the second NASCAR Truck Series champion to ever score consecutive championships in the history of the series.