AVONDALE, Ariz. — The bartenders at “The Barn” at Phoenix Raceway had Bud Lights ready to be cracked towards the end of Friday night’s Camping World Truck Series race. Ben Rhodes was out front on a late restart.
After winning the 2021 Truck Series championship, Rhodes became synonymous for his enjoyment of the adult beverage. “The Barn” even created an Old Fashioned drink named after him. And had he won a second consecutive title, he vowed the celebration would outweigh last year’s party.
Hard to follow, sure, but Rich Lushes put the No. 99 truck out front of the other three Championship 4 drivers on a “bold” strategy call with less than 15 laps remaining. Rhodes made quick work of Carson Hocevar and Stewart Friesen, both of whom stayed out on old tires.
The only problem was, the other three Championship 4 drivers had four fresh tires to work with. Rhodes had just right-side sticker tires.
“I’m thankful for those calls, I just wish it could have worked out differently,” Rhodes said following the race. “That was just the story of two versus four. I couldn’t get the jump I needed on the green. I just didn’t have the grip with my two tires that the other guys had, and it was just extremely difficult to hold them off.”
But he did hold off his competition until Ty Majeski spun with four laps remaining. That set up a green-white-checkered finish with Championship 4 drivers Chandler Smith and Zane Smith on his side and back bumper.
Rhodes knew he was in trouble.
“If I could do it over again, I would’ve changed up my restart a little bit,” he said. “I went with what I thought would have been best for me.
“It’s unexpected to be racing for the win like that when we were sixth through tenth the whole day. So that pit strategy was really very appreciated. That’s what gave me the chance, and I think it was bold, and it could have paid off big. It definitely paid off to get second.”
On the final restart, Zane Smith was able to pass Rhodes, while he held off Chandler Smith for second.
The No. 99 Toyota was average throughout the race. Rhodes finished sixth in the opening stage and dropped to 10th in the second stage.
Because his pace was off, Rhodes thought there was no way he’d be able to hold on to the lead. He had to use some driving tactics to try to hold off the competition.
“Drive as hard as you can, use the clean air, block the dirty air,” Rhodes added. “When I was in front of [Zane Smith], I just knew I had to drive in as deep as possible, get it turned as quick as possible and do everything I could, don’t worry about saving the truck. If I destroy the truck here, so be it, because I was doing all I could to hold him off.
“If the caution never came out, I think honest to goodness we could have won the thing. But that’s hindsight. That’s make-believe land.”
The reality is, Rhodes finished runner-up to Zane Smith. He ends the season with one win (Bristol dirt), eight top-five and 13 top-10 finishes.
He will get another chance with ThorSport to try again in 2023.
“He drove the wheels off of it and didn’t leave anything on the table,” David Pepper, general manager of ThorSport, said. “We just came up a little short this year. Still won two of the last four and we’ll be back next year. We’ll regroup and have to find more speed to see if we can’t get it done next year.”
Chandler Smith finished third in the championship standings while Ty Majeski placed 20th in the race and fourth in the title hunt.