KANSAS CITY, Kansas — Ben Rhodes said he never felt the debris that hit the front of his dominant ThorSport Racing No. 27 Toyota. A close inspection showed why.
Rhodes’ path to a seemingly in-hand breakthrough victory in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series came undone seven laps shy of the finish with engine failure Friday night at Kansas Speedway. The setback allowed Kyle Busch to inherit the lead and drive to victory in the Toyota Tundra 250.
The cause of Rhodes’ demise was almost imperceptible — debris that pierced the grill left just a coin-sized hole in the front end, but it was enough to puncture the radiator and gradually drain the water from his truck’s powerplant.
“We hit something,” Rhodes said after his 23rd-place finish. “It’s just strange that it had to happen like that and had to happen to us.”
Rhodes was ever-so-close to avenging his difficult loss in last year’s 250-miler at Kansas, when he crashed battling Johnny Sauter for the lead in an overtime finish. This time, the defeat left Rhodes feeling snakebitten as he remained winless in 31 career truck starts.
“It’s always been something throughout my racing career,” Rhodes said. “I know everybody says it’s never easy, but I’ve lost way more than I’ve ever won leading races, or something always happens. It just seems like we can never overcome it. This whole season, we’ve done everything right and contended for wins every single race, and it’s just been bad luck. We’ve just got to overcome this somehow. I don’t know how that is.”
Rhodes led four times for 25 laps, grabbing the top spot for the final time on the 142nd of 167 laps. After racing hard alongside Busch to take command, he began to put some distance on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular.
“He drove a flawless race,” Busch said of Rhodes. “He was doing an awesome job. There were times when I had to pull a lot of tricks out of my bag in order to keep him behind me, and I think he learned a little bit from that.”
Rhodes learned plenty, but the team was still shaking its head after the late-race turn of events. Crew chief Eddie Troconis snapped a quick picture of the slight damage to the grill before the No. 27 was loaded up to head home.
“We were just sailing to the checkers,” Troconis said. “We were like 10 laps to go, no mistakes. We were just cruising. There was no reason why we were not going win this thing. But like you always say, you don’t get the checkered flag until you cross the last lap. Unfortunately, it’s out of our control.”
Rhodes’ dejection was evident in post-race interviews, but so was the support from his team and other well-wishers. Encouragement came from multiple sources — hugs from his ThorSport crew, a pat on the back from fellow driver Brett Moffitt, and reassuring words from Toyota Racing Development’s David Wilson.
“It’s what you need to hear. It’s what you like to hear. It’d be a lot better seeing that in Victory Lane,” Rhodes said. “I’m glad that I have the support of everybody behind me because if you don’t have that, then you have nothing. It probably feels like we have nothing, but I know that our guys are still battling tooth and nail. I’m giving it 150 billion percent and I know they are, too. I’m going as hard as I can go, and as I told everybody else, if Ben Rhodes don’t make it in this game, it’s not from lack of effort.”