Ben Rhodes Championship 4 Media Day

Ben Rhodes, driver of the No. 99 Kubota Ford F-150 for ThorSport Racing, seeks his second career NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series championship – his first with Ford. Rhodes met with the media to give his outlook of the championship heading into the finale, the hurdles ahead at Phoenix Raceway and more.

 

BEN RHODES, No. 99 Kubota Ford F-150 – HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT YOUR CHANCES IN THIS YEAR’S CHAMPIONSHIP? “I feel pretty good about our chances. I’ve mentioned this before – a few different times – but I’m going to say it again because I think it’s worth noting… We’ve just been in the grind every time to get here. Every year we get into a grind just to get to this point, and I say that because other drivers have won a race to get themselves locked in early-on. We’re in a grind, we get in on a tie-breaker – just strategy and doing everything we can to fight our way into the playoffs… and we make it. Year after year, we’ve been doing that. I think that speaks volumes to strategy, but also the will that the team has to try to get to this point. So, I wouldn’t count us out by any means, even if we’re not doing well. Last year, we were running seventh, caution comes out and we almost win the darn thing. I feel good about our chances, and looking at the other drivers that are in it – not taking anything away from their programs – they have more wins than us throughout the season, but we’ve been here and done it. I just feel like if I was looking over the roster of the drivers who are outside of it and inside of it, I would have picked the ones that are in it.”

 

YOU SEEM VERY CALM FOR BEING IN THE CHAMPIONSHIP 4. IS THAT AN ADVANTAGE? “Mental advantage, for sure. But, that can only go so far. When the green flag drops, everyone should be feeling calm. I mean if they’re not, that’s great for me. But, they should be feeling calm and relying on their equipment at that point. Still, when things get exciting, we have the experience to fall back on. After doing this for the third year in a row, I just feel so calm and just at peace being here. I remember the first year, I was so worked-up – I was so excited, so nervous and just wanting to do anything I could to just seize the opportunity. It took years for me to get to that point, and I didn’t want to let it pass. But, I was still appreciative to be there. Now, at this point, I’m grateful to be here – I’m really grateful to be here. I just feel at peace. I just feel like this is where we’re supposed to be.”

 

THREE-STRAIGHT FINAL FOURS. IS THAT A CONFIDENCE BOOST HEADING INTO THE WEEKEND? “I didn’t think anything of it at first. Then my crew chief sent me some stats about it. Reflecting on it, it is a pretty special accomplishment, and I think that was my point earlier – the fact that we’ve rooted and clawed our way into every single one of them. It wasn’t like that we had the luxury of getting our way into any one of them – tie-breaker twice, at one point, and one point on another. So, it’s just been a grind. But I think that prepares us better for Phoenix than anybody, because we’ve been racing every single race like it’s our last – like our lives depended on it.”

 

WERE THERE ANY STATS THAT STOOD OUT TO YOU? MAYBE ADVANCING TO THE CHAMPIONSHIP 4 THREE CONSECUTIVE SEASONS? “It was mainly that one. We don’t get very deep on this team. I think Zane [Smith] and I are the only ones who have done it. It’s a nice club. The crazy part is that people will be like, ‘You have to lose one to win one.’ We won one, and then we lost one. I knew what it felt like finally – just terrible. I don’t want to feel like that again. You better believe that we’re going to do everything we can this race. The dejection you feel carries with you for so long, especially when it’s a late-race restart. Three laps. You’re looking at less than a minute and a half between knowing if you are the champion or aren’t. It’s incredible. It’s hard to put into words really what that is and the range of emotions that you experience from the drop of that final green flag. That’s what last year was, and I can actually point to one specific instance of that race – that last minute and a half – that led to where we were second-place. I know what not to do now. I lost one… now I know what not to do. The first one we kind of just figured it out. So, hopefully we can just figure it out again and not have to go through adversity. But, we’ll see.”

 

HOW IMPORTANT IS THE 50-MINUTE PRACTICE SESSION THIS WEEKEND? “It’s big for us this weekend, actually. I would tell you for most weekends, no. The reason why is when you’re midway through the season, and you’re working on developing new setups, packages and new body builds, we kind of have a lot of that figured out. But, we do have a new package that we want to implement this weekend. We’re starting out with it. We have no experience with it. If it were a normal practice session, we would be like, ‘What do we do?’ It would be a really hard decision. So, we have ‘Ol’ Reliable’ – 2021 and 2022– setup teed up and ready to go. We can switch over to that in probably about 10 minutes in the middle of practice. But, we want to start out with what’s unknown and what we think is best, putting our best foot forward. But, there are no guarantees with that. Thank goodness we have 50 minutes to figure it out.”

 

IF YOU WERE TO WIN THE CHAMPIONSHIP, ALLISON THORSON HAS MENTIONED A TEAM-WIDE “SHOEY” CELEBRATION. “Well I only have two shoes, so we’ll have to pass the cup. You know what’s funny about that? I really didn’t think it through when I made that bet (2021). I was thinking about how awesome it’d be to do a shoey. I give Rich [Lushes] the shoe in ‘21, he takes it and I really didn’t think about it… I had to put my foot back in that champagne soaked shoe. I walked around in that sucker for three hours after that. My foot looked like it had been soaking in water… trench foot going on from champagne. It was terrible. I have to think this through. I’m going to have to have a second pair of shoes heated up and ready to go. She has a shoe and they can have both of them. I’ll just be barefoot the rest of the night before I put those back on.”

 

WHAT DO YOU THINK YOUR ROLE IS IN THE SERIES AND HOW DO YOU EARN RESPECT? “I’ve always been considered the dark horse, I think, because we do have to fight for it so hard. For whatever reason, we haven’t really hit a perfect stride just yet – on anything. I don’t know what to attribute that to. I feel like as a whole, that’s been kind of a thing that all of us at ThorSport have been working on. You look back to when Matt Crafton was just dominant: Winning like five or six races in a season and two championships in a row. Just killing it, right? ThorSport was on-top of the world. Since then, we’ve been getting multiple wins as an organization every year, but it hasn’t been that dominance that they experienced with Matt Crafton. So, hats off to him. I would like to experience that for once. I’ve been asking him what’s different, what do we need to do, and he’s been fully involved on the development side. I’d say he’s the loudest voice in the team to try to help us get better, keep improving, R&D. Things are just changing every year. The NT1 motors, we have bump springs on now… everybody’s body builds. It’s just getting different even though the Truck series really hasn’t changed. It’s developing, and it’s all stuff that’s hard to see with a naked eye, but it’s making a bit of difference on the racetrack. So I’d like to hit that stride, but until then, we’re kind of the dark horse. We go out, we win a couple races a year and we make our way into the Championship 4 and show up big time, in a big way. I’m fine with that. If that’s what my career is, then we’re going to have a great career, because I know we’ll have more championships in our future. But I’m 26 (years old) right now. I’m having the time of my life doing this stuff, and there’s nowhere I’d rather be. Respect or not, I’m having a great time, and I really don’t care what they think of me. I’m just here to have fun and bring a championship back to my team, because I love it, they love it and the culture’s awesome.”

 

HOW IMPORTANT IS RICH IN YOUR CAREER? “Rich is really fun. I’ve had some of my most fun racing with that guy on the box. It never fails: Rich just finds a way to put me in some sort of situation to be on old tires… ‘You got this buddy, hold them off.’ He always finds a way to do those calls and it pays off. So, I can’t be mad at the guy. Actually, he’s like my biggest hero because he makes these calls, they pay off and we’re in the playoffs right now because of that call he made. We almost won the championship last year because of the call he made. Other than that, we might have been fourth. But every single time he finds a way to get us into contention – even if we’re not in contention because we’re just slow, he’ll say, ‘You know, Ben: I thought we had a good package under us, but we didn’t have the best truck. Sorry about that, but here’s your two tires, everyone else has four, so go do work.’ He figures out the call, how to make it work, and does good at that. I’d say he makes himself look like a genius a lot of times.”

 

HOW HARD IS IT TO BUY INTO THOSE TYPES OF STRATEGIES? “Oh, I don’t even think twice about it. When he makes a call, I’m all-in. The trust is there. Actually in Homestead, I knew that he was going to be doing something in the back of my mind. We didn’t even talk about it yet, but I just knew, ‘All right, what would Rich do? We’re not running well right now, we’re down and out. He’s going to make the call here. All right, let’s see what he’s got.’ It’s almost entertaining to me to see what it’s going to be at that point, and I don’t think twice about it. I just trust it completely. He tells me the goals afterwards. He says, ‘All right, you’re on new tires. Everyone else is going to have to pit. You’re going to be really close on fuel, so save me what you can, save what tire you can, but get all the track position you can. By the way, we’re looking at closing the gap between you and the leader because they may catch you.’ He gives me the whole gamut of what’s going to happen, and with that information, we just go put in work. That’s all you can ask for as a driver – a guy that puts you in position, gives you the information and all the tools at your disposal. For that reason, I have all the trust in the world.”

 

DO YOU FIND OTHER COMPETITORS RACE YOU DIFFERENTLY IN THE CHAMPIONSHIP ROUNDS? “Depends on who it is. If it’s a teammate of one of the other championship drivers, yeah, they race you a little differently. They race you really hard, because they think they’re helping their teammate out. If it’s anybody else on the track, they race you normally, but certainly, nobody cuts you any slack. Actually, I’d say that is one of the biggest perils of being in this race is the drivers. I look at them as almost obstacles or roadblocks – not the ones that are in the Championship 4, even though those are the only ones that I’m worried about. The other drivers that are on the track, the other 30-something trucks, I look at them as the only thing that can take away our championship from us. Right now I look at it as we have a championship that we can go out and win, and we have this opportunity. The only thing that can take it away from us now are the other drivers on the track. Don’t let them have the opportunity. Don’t do anything stupid on my part. Don’t make a mistake and get racing with them too hard. Because, that’s what will happen. They’re here to close out their season with a bang. They want to win it. They want to say that they beat these other championship trucks to the line. If they do or they don’t, it makes no difference to me. The only thing that matters to me is beating the other championship trucks. We could be 20th, and if those other trucks are behind me, I’m celebrating like you’ve never seen.”

 

WHAT TYPE OF RACER DO YOU CONSIDER YOURSELF AS? “Well, it’s changed over the years. I would say the most formative thing about my persona behind the wheel is my personal life – having a wife and a kid now, and having another one on the way. Kind of what that looks like at home, and the different races you pick up from being in the grind when you go home. You leave the shop being sleep deprived to go home and be sleep deprived. The different situations that you’re in that sort of build you into a better human being, that make you a better dad, a better husband and just ultimately, a better person at the shop. I’m thankful for that. I wouldn’t change it for anything. I think that’s formed me into a better driver, honestly. The old joke goes, ‘For every kid, you’re going to lose one-tenth or two-tenths.’ I see it the other way. I think it’s made me more calm, more peaceful, and just more focused because it oriented my life in a better way, where now I’m not just living for myself, but I’m going out here trying to win a championship for my kids. So, they can have a better future. I really don’t care that they think, ‘Oh, dad’s out here racing a championship as a professional driver, or something like that.’ No, I just want to be a dad to them. At the end of the day, I want to win so it can afford them a better life of opportunities – the ability to go places, see things and be better people.”

 

SO, DOES BEING MORE GIVING OFF THE TRACK FORCE YOU TO BE MORE SELFISH ON THE TRACK? “Not even that, actually. I’ve always had aggression, and it’s been bad. A lot of times, early in my career, the aggression led to DNFs, bad finishes and just bad relationships on the track. I think it’s mellowed me out, and it’s also allowed me to see the bigger picture, where I’m not going to race so-and-so as hard on the racetrack now because I feel like I’ve matured as a human being and driver that I can see how everything is going to play out. If you gave 2016 Ben Rhodes the deal last week at Homestead – old tires, hanging on for 55 laps and running out of fuel to the line – I would have been too aggressive and not seen the big picture. Having run through so many stages of life, I just feel like I see things clearly. I know when to be aggressive versus when not. it’s not unchecked anymore.”

 

HOW HAVE YOU MANAGED THIS TIME OF THE YEAR? “Well the first year just kind of happened, and we figured it out on the first try. The second year was, ‘Well, I know what not to do now,’ and I can point back to one instance that made us second place. It may be unfair to say, because you can’t be sure that if you went back in time to implement what you learned, if then we’d win it. But, it would be a lot harder of a fight and a lot harder for me to finish second. I can tell you, looking back at it, there were certain things I could have implemented on-track, in the truck at certain times, but as a whole doing this, I’m just calm, relaxed and ready to go. I don’t feel like anything off the track is getting to me. The first year, I don’t know… You go up on stage, here comes the flames, there are people everywhere, more booms and microphones than I’ve ever seen in my life. I couldn’t even get to the truck with all the people. I just go sit on pit wall because there are so many people trying to talk to you and you want to get focused. I know how to handle that now. I kind of know what to do. I always used it as the expression of if you’re a new driver or rookie, you don’t know where to park your car, you don’t know what restaurants are good, you don’t know how to get to the airport because you’re at a new place for the first time – all that stuff does play a little bit of a factor, because they are stressors that you don’t really think about. I don’t have those. I’m just chill, relaxing. These other guys are trying to figure out what to do – haven’t been to media day before. It’s just going through the motions.”

 

WHAT LOCAL RESTAURANTS OR ACTIVITIES DO YOU MAKE TIME FOR DURING THE FINAL RACE WEEK? “We go to T-Bones Steakhouse every year – it’s our tradition. Usually Wednesday, sometimes Thursday. We’re going tonight. Last night, we had a big team event at TopGolf. I had a team dinner with the boss and the family. So yeah, tonight’s the night – steak and apple pie. I tried hiking Camelback because I saw everyone’s pictures, and I got about halfway up until the trail got really difficult. I’m like, ‘I’m going to literally break an arm before trying to win a championship tonight.’ I turned back, and I’m really glad I went back to the car and just drove to the track. I thought that I was going to get my head in the right space. No, I’m not going to go on a hike on a mountain where I can fall off. I just try to stay focused: Early morning I kind of just get my head in the right space, talk to my family, look over data, look at in-car video. I text my team about the plan for today, when they get to the track, what I want to do specifically with them while the other guys are going through tech. I have my own plan with just my crew chief and the engineers. So, I’m trying to make sure no stone is left unturned. Yeah, but off the track, we have that covered.”

 

WHAT MAKES THIS TEAM UNIQUE? “Well, I’d like to say putting our best foot forward, but we showed up to Homestead thinking that we did that and for some reason, nothing really translated. We put in all this R&D on the truck, we built this new body and did all these things, and I can firmly say that if we didn’t build out the new body and try different things, that would have been an even harder drive. But, we just missed it on the package. So, I’m not going to say that’s the best thing. I think the absolute best thing is just the fact that when our backs are up against the wall, we still find a way. When we have two tires as opposed to everyone else’s four, we still find a way. I can tell you that there is no lack of fire in my belly. I have been more hungry now having tasted what it’s like to win. The first four or five years, I had never made it here. You almost get into a lull, where your fire is just a little suppressed, and now that I’ve won it, it’s just raging. And when you lose it, it’s just raging even more. I would say the fire in all our bellies. Rich is the same way. We talked about that frequently. The cool part is that Rich and I are the only ones on this team that have experienced this before. All the other guys on my team have been doing this a very long time, but they have never made it to the Championship 4. They are beyond excited. I had to warn them at the shop – they were almost putting the cart before the horse. We’ve made it there, but it doesn’t mean we’ve won it yet. But, they are so beyond excited to be here. For Rich and I, it’s another emotional aspect to it too, and these guys get that opportunity. They deserve it. They work really hard, but they just never got there. It just speaks volumes on how hard they work. They’ve worked with so many different drivers and never got to this point.”

 

WHO INITIATED THAT CHANGE WHICH REUNITED YOU WITH RICH AS YOUR CREW CHIEF? “No, it wasn’t something we initiated at all. I think we were both ok with it at the time, mainly because Rich is going to get to work with Hailie [Deegan] – he has a superstar there and an opportunity to teach her a lot of stuff from what we learned the past couple of years of working together. She had what would presumably be a really good opportunity stepping into that deal. I was going over here to work with a different crew chief, who I had been around, worked with – the whole team I had worked with in some capacity before – so I am not going to say that he was excited or that I was excited, but we just saw it as different opportunities to try and make ourselves better. That’s what we did all year long. I think Rich will tell you that he’s better for it because he appreciates everything now, he got experience with another driver which is always a good thing – anybody who says that it’s good to only hone in on one driver, I think they’re wrong. I’ve been with a lot of crew chiefs now, and I’ve learned something from all of them. Every single one, I’ve learned something from that I still carry with me today. But, it has been a challenging season from that aspect. I’ve worked with three crew chiefs now and it wasn’t easy. But, we figured it out.”

 

WHAT WAS YOUR REACTION TO THE NEWS? “I made the joke on Race Hub the other night: ‘Again?,’ meaning that I was getting another crew chief again. But it wasn’t like ‘again’ – I’m actually really excited to work with Rich, and I give him a lot of credit because I don’t know if we’d be here now if it wasn’t for Rich on the pit box at Homestead. He made a call that was really ballsy, that I don’t think a lot of people would have recognized or had the guts to try to pull off. He did it. So, I give him a lot of credit, and I’m thankful that he’s on the box because out of everyone I’ve worked with, he’s the only guy I’ve done this with now at Homestead – two years in a row, it’s been him and I. Three years in a row now, it’s been him and I. I wouldn’t change it for anything. I think everyone back at the shop in leadership positions is glad that he’s there simply for that fact – it’s the common denominator.”

 

HAVE YOU EVER THOUGHT OF YOURSELF AS A VETERAN OF THE SERIES, ESPECIALLY WITH ALL YOUR SUCCESS AND EXPERIENCE? “It’s actually funny you say that because it’s really humbling to me that that’s the case. I mean, a few years ago, if you told me that I was racing for a championship, I would say ‘Wow, what an opportunity.’ It makes me emotional, really. I came so close at one point in my career of not even being here. I was going to be a HVAC tech. I started going to school for it in 2018 and 2019. I officially retired like in 2018, and then Duke [Thorson] called us and gave me the opportunity. I’m here because Duke Thorson gave me the opportunity to do this, and I’m hoping that the owner’s championship in 2021 made him happy, because he hadn’t had it before. Thanks for believing in me – I wrote that on the picture that I gave him of the championship because it really does come down to the fact that he gave me my opportunity. Now, for three years in a row, we’re backing that up and trying again. If we can pull it off, it would mean nothing more to me. It is humbling, though, to think that we are veterans. I’m 26 and I do feel old – starting to get some gray hair and probably for good reason. We’ve been doing it awhile, I know what not to do now. [My team] thinks this pumps me up, but it doesn’t. They sent me a crash compilation on YouTube of all my crashes in my career before coming to Phoenix, and I’m like, ‘What is that supposed to do?’ He’s like, ‘Well, you know what not to do.’ Yeah, well, I’m not the same driver as 2016 Ben or 2017 or 2018 or ‘19… or even ‘20 and ‘21. Every year I feel like I’m getting better. I’ve never felt like we’ve missed anything yet. I’m learning every year. It’s just funny. We have a good culture on the team, and I feel like I’ve matured so much as a driver that the things that used to make me mad, I haven’t even given any attention anymore. That comes from being in a good place in my personal life. I’m just happy, and I feel really at peace being here. Just happy… ready to go.”

 

DID YOU BRING ANYBODY WITH YOU FOR THE FINALE? “So this kind of speaks to my last point there with just being at peace. I am coming into this race recognizing the opportunity, but I see it differently than anybody else outside it does. My family and friends were so excited for me, and I’m just like, ‘We have to get to work.’ They have a billon hot passes that are all here, at the Sky Deck, they’re doing this – some haven’t even been to a race all year long. My wife wants to come, she’s pregnant, keep in mind, and due in a few months. We have a young one at home. ‘Just stay back with the baby, it’s easier… that’s a three-hour trip with the baby on the plane.’ But, she really wanted to be here. It’s just another race to me, and that’s really how I’ve been approaching it. It’s just another race to me, and they don’t understand how I can see it that way. They’re freaking out at me that I see it that way, and on the other side of the spectrum, I don’t understand how out of their minds excited they are. I’ve kind of put myself in my own bubble for that reason, but I do that every year. I hyperfocus on the race, which I think is a good thing. I watch all kinds of footage, I spend a bunch of time in the sim, we walk pit road, we look at everything we can look at. I think that hyperfocus attitude does lead to some sort of success. I do think that helps us here.”

 

WHAT X-FACTOR DO YOU BRING TO THIS CHAMPIONSHIP THAT THE OTHERS MAY NOT? “I don’t know what I’d say to that. You almost have to have some chip on your shoulder or like an attitude about yourself compared to other people to say something to that. I guess the thing I bring is myself. I don’t know what that is. Maybe other people can tell me what I bring, but I don’t recognize anything I bring as different or unique. I just get in my truck and do my deal.”

 

HAVE YOU THOUGHT ABOUT BEING A TWO-TIME CHAMPION AND WHAT THAT WOULD MEAN? “I really haven’t thought about it a whole lot. But it is pretty humbling to think that, what an honor it’d be. If you list out the names of two-time champions, it’s pretty crazy. I consider them monuments of men in our sport that are legendary. They’re going to go in the Hall of Fame if they aren’t already – Ron Hornaday is there. It’s just cool. But even if I did get a second championship, I really wouldn’t consider myself one of them. I consider them greater than me, actually. I’m really bad at that – I consider a lot of people better than me. But maybe that fuels that fire like I have something to prove. That’s always been my attitude – I focus on myself, I don’t really think about what it’d mean or what it could be. But I promise you, I’ll celebrate harder than any of them because I do recognize the grind and struggle it is to get here. I know what my story has been and how hard it’s been to get to this point. Every opportunity I get, I really try to make the most of it. I’ve done that more in my life too. I try to take time to recognize things. I used to be really bad that even if we won, I’d be focused on the next race. I really didn’t celebrate or appreciate it. It’s really hard to do. You better appreciate the heck out of it. It’s not easy.”

 

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