Many years from now, Ben Rhodes could be sitting in a rocking chair in front of an old town barbershop spinning yarns about what happened one evening in Arizona. Those within earshot will probably shrug it off as just another wild story, like actor Andy Devine did in a 1962 episode of the Twilight Zone. However, whatever electronic devices that are in use at that time will likely clear up any confusion.
Ben Rhodes did not take home the trophy for winning the Lucas Oil 150 at Phoenix Raceway on Friday night. That hardware went to rookie Chandler Smith, who took the checkered flag for the second time this season, doing it from the pole. Smith would also lead a trio of Toyota trucks across the finish line, with Stewart Friesen in second and Ben Rhodes right behind.
That third-place finish for Ben Rhodes set off a wild post-race celebration as he finished ahead of the other Championship 4 contenders for his first Camping World Truck Series title. Zane Smith wound up fifth, John Hunter Nemechek seventh, and Matt Crafton’s night ended with a P12.
Ben Rhodes never led a single lap, but he did what he had to do in the latter stages of the contest. After the race, he said:
“That was the hardest last 40 laps I think I have ever driven in my life. 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.”
Ben Rhodes started 2021 with back-to-back wins
The bookends Ben Rhodes referred to was winning the season opener at the Daytona oval, which immediately qualified him for the Camping World Truck Series playoffs. He followed that up with another win, on the Daytona road course the following week, holding off defending champion Sheldon Creed.
Paul Doleshal, Group Manager of Motorsports and Asset Management at Toyota Motor North America, chimed in on Ben Rhodes' title by saying:
“To see Ben’s excitement in winning his first career NASCAR championship has been really special. We couldn’t be more thrilled to [be] a part of this championship journey for Ben and help add his name to a remarkable list of Tundra drivers who have won Truck Series championships.”
If there was a hard-luck story to be told about the outcome, it was John Hunter Nemechek. Starting furthest back in the pack of any playoff driver, in P16, the first five laps almost ended his night as it did a week ago at Martinsville Speedway. He had crashed out at The Paperclip, but advanced to Phoenix because he had banked enough points.
Nemechek's No. 4 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota tagged the wall, and as he was coming away from it, Corey Roper clipped his front end, cutting a tire. Repairs were made, but he was P31 at the end of the first stage.
Commenting on his race, Nemechek said:
“Yeah, I got run into the first corner, got into the fence, somebody else ran into us on the left side, and this thing is killed pretty much, but had a left front tire go flat, went down two laps, got both of our laps back, but just needed more laps, I guess. After all, [I] felt we had the best truck tonight playoff-wise for sure. Drove from pretty much last to seventh there and running down Ben (Rhodes) and Zane (Smith) for the championship, just not enough. That’s what’s frustrating.”
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Finishing seventh was a remarkable comeback and it makes some wonder how things would have worked out without the early woes.