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September 9, 2023

Ben Rhodes scrapes into Round of 8; DiBenedetto falls just short at Kansas

Ben Rhodes stands on pit road after the Truck race at Kansas
Alejandro Alvarez
NASCAR Studios

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Ben Rhodes battled an ill-handling truck all night and wound up 25th, two laps down at Kansas Speedway on Friday night. Matt DiBenedetto stormed to a third-place finish in the Kansas Lottery 200.

And yet the two Round of 10 contenders ended up on opposite sides of the elimination line as the first round of the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series Playoffs came to a close: Rhodes advanced to the Round of 8 by a scant five points, while DiBenedetto was ousted from the postseason grid along with Matt Crafton, who was 11 points shy of advancing.

MORE: Race results | At-track photos

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Rhodes, the 2021 series champion, qualified sixth and was inside the top five early, but the handling quickly faded on his No. 99 ThorSport Racing Ford before he slapped the outside SAFER barrier exiting Turn 4, hampering any chance of contending for a win.

Rhodes entered the night three points behind Nick Sanchez for the final transfer spot in the playoffs — and nine points behind teammate Crafton. But Crafton’s dismal night — a crash in practice forced him to start from the rear in a backup truck before further wall contact mid-race ended his hopes of a fourth championship — buoyed both Sanchez and Rhodes.

While Rhodes’ title hopes are alive and well, his smile and laughs through his post-race comments simply masked his disappointment.

“Realistically, I should be happy, but I said it before — the expectation’s to move on,” Rhodes said. “The expectation’s to be in the (Championship) 4. So meeting the expectation, I don’t think, is really a cause to celebrate. We’re just kind of moving to the next round. Celebrating is, I think, reserved for the championship or for a race win. Right now, we’re just heads down; we’ve got to keep grinding. Just because we made it, we can’t lose sight now.”

On the other end of the spectrum was DiBenedetto, whose third-place finish tied his season-best result. Rhodes’ points cushion was just enough to force DiBenedetto into a must-win situation heading into the final restart, which came with two laps to go.

DiBenedetto restarted as the fourth truck on the outside lane, choosing from the seventh position. He stormed to fourth as the front-runners jostled three-wide for the win ahead of him. He could clearly see the checkered flag ahead of him, but so too were trucks driven by Christian Eckes and Taylor Gray, keeping DiBenedetto from advancing to the Round of 8.

“I mean, I’m proud of the finish and the effort and the solid truck and the solid race, all the effort of my team,” DiBenedetto said. “Proud of that, but gosh, just have a lot of mixed emotions right now. Just stinks. I don’t want to look in the rear-view mirror too much, but it stinks we had our issue at Milwaukee because then we’d be in the next round, and I would’ve been like, ‘heck yeah, a strong third-place run going to Bristol.’ But what can I do? All we can do is just go try and win them now.”

DiBenedetto, who announced Aug. 30 he will not return to the No. 25 Rackley W.A.R. Chevrolet in 2024, said the problem at the Milwaukee Mile on Aug. 27 was a “little failure” that was found at the shop after the race that explained why they struggled en route to a 27th-place finish, two laps down.

“At least we understood why we were way off, but it stinks it happened because it set us back in points. And then we made back up a bunch of them tonight and got a third, but oh well.”

A free agent for next season, DiBenedetto admitted the past couple of years have been a “roller coaster,” one that saw him grind in the Cup Series with mid-to-back-of-the-pack organizations before an opportunity to drive the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford for two years before the team went another direction with driver Harrison Burton.

“I don’t know. I have a lot of mixed, odd emotions and stuff going through my head,” he said. “It’s been an interesting couple or few years in life. I’ve kind of gotten passed up on a lot of opportunities as far as when there’s a lot of seats open and people out, things like that. It’s just been a tough couple years in life and general, I would say.

“I’m very thankful here and where I’m at. It’s just been a roller coaster of emotions as far as just, I’ve had a lot of career change, life change and lots of things. But ultimately, I’m just grateful. I’ve got to be just grateful for getting to drive in circles for a living.”

For Rhodes and seven others, the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series Playoffs reset, with the opening slate of the Round of 8 set for Thursday night at Bristol Motor Speedway (9 ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).