Have yourself another one, Ben Rhodes — you are a two-time NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion. Now, time to celebrate.
Rhodes battled for the Truck Series crown for the third consecutive season, converting for the second time in his career in Friday’s Craftsman 150 at Phoenix Raceway. He finished ahead of fellow Championship 4 contenders Corey Heim, Carson Hocevar and Grant Enfinger to join elite company with his second series title.
Rhodes, who drives the No. 99 ThorSport Ford, is just the fifth competitor in series history to accomplish the feat. He joins Ron Hornaday Jr. (four), teammate Matt Crafton (three), Jack Sprague (two) and Todd Bodine (two).
His first title in 2021 was punctuated by an incredible celebration following the consumption of a few choice beverages. Let’s see what he does for an encore.
“I can’t even believe it. Let’s go!” Rhodes said. “I hate when people do that on TV, so I’m sorry. But hey, this is so awesome, man.
“To go 25 laps into overtime, you know what that feels like? Almost lose it three times? Look at the front of the truck. It’s crazy. I didn’t think we were going to make it. I thought we were going to pop a tire. I thought anything that could have gone wrong was going to go wrong.”
Christian Eckes won Friday’s race, his fifth victory in the Truck Series, with Rhodes coming in fifth place and holding off a hard-charging Enfinger in sixth. The race turned out to be a battle of attrition with four overtime sessions needed to decide the winner.
“I don’t know. It was just the original green-white-checkered there where we went four wide, Ben gassed it up there on the bottom, drove us in the 19 and tore up our truck and then we had to restart from 22nd there,” Enfinger said. “That’s kind of what ended our run. Obviously we got close there at the end.
“I don’t know, maybe if he didn’t have such a run down the back straightaway, but I needed to get under him to make that pass.”
The other Champ 4 contenders finished well back in the pack with Heim coming in 18th and Hocevar finishing 29th. Heim led 47 laps but was done in when he and Hocevar made contact on Lap 119 of a scheduled 150 laps.
Heading into Phoenix, Rhodes had maximized results throughout the playoffs. He had the fewest top-five finishes for a series champion since Crafton had seven in 2019 — but found the speed when it mattered most.
The No. 99 team narrowly escaped an early elimination in the opening round with a pair of 16th-place finishes at Indianapolis and Milwaukee, followed by a 25th-place result at Kansas Speedway. Earning 12 stage points at Kansas ultimately saved Rhodes’ season, and he scraped into the Round of 8 by five points.
The No. 99 team capitalized on its second chance at life in the Round of 8, scoring three top-10 finishes, and finishing the round with a pair of podium efforts.
Much of the credit for the No. 99 team’s success should go to Rhodes’ crew chief Rich Lushes. When the No. 99 truck lacked sufficient speed at Homestead-Miami Speedway and was mired well outside the top 10, Lushes made a bold decision to bring his driver to pit road when a caution flew with 54 laps remaining. The team’s only hope was for the race to go caution-free to the finish, and the strategy played out to perfection with Rhodes finishing the round tied with Nick Sanchez for the final spot in the Championship 4, but claiming the tiebreaker.
Rhodes has a shot to keep it rolling in 2024, with all signs pointing toward a return to ThorSport, which gave the 26-year-old his first crack at the national touring level on a full-time basis in 2016.
Friday’s championship run shows just how ThorSport has risen in prominence in the Truck Series. Led By Duke and Rhonda Thorson, the Ohio-based company has accounted for five driver championships and is home to two of the five drivers in the history of the series who have scored multiple championships. The team’s trucks took up 30% of the playoff field in 2023 and left the desert, once again, with the big trophy.