May 19th, 2016

Rhodes ready for Charlotte's challenge

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Roy Walter

Assistant Editor


Rhodes ready for Charlotte's challenge
Ben Rhodes will be racing on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s main track for the first time in Friday night’s Truck Series race / photo by Michael Levitt / cover photo from ThorSport Racing’s Facebook page via nascar.com

In a way, Friday’s night’s Camping World Truck Series race will mark Ben Rhodes’ first trip to Charlotte Motor Speedway. But in another way, it won’t.

Rhodes raced on much smaller tracks in Charlotte’s complex while working his way up through the stock car ranks, but he has never raced on the big track where NASCAR’s upper-tier series run.

As a Truck Series rookie, that’s the sort of thing Rhodes will be doing a lot this season: He’ll be a first-timer at most of the stops on the 23-race schedule. 

And he doesn’t mind it at all.

“I enjoy new surfaces – they’re fun and a new challenge for me,” the 2015 graduate of Holy Cross High School said. “It kind of keeps you sharp as a race car driver and keeps the whole procedure, your whole strategy, fresh in your mind.”

Though he’s a neophyte on the 1½-mile main track, his previous trips to Charlotte have given Rhodes the chance to see it up close, which he believes has helped in his preparation for Friday’s NC Education Lottery 200. 

“While it may be my first time on the racing surface,” he said, “all the other stuff that kind of distracts you from the racing side of things – restaurants, hotels, where you’re going, how to get to the track, where to park  – I know all that stuff. So that’s really nice going to Charlotte.”

The big track at Charlotte is a bit unique in that it has a quad-oval layout as opposed to the tri-ovals usually found in NASCAR. That means there will be four turns instead of three, but Rhodes doesn’t think the extra corner will be a big deal.

“It’s going to be similar to other tracks,” he said. “Turns one and two are similar to Kansas (Speedway). Turns three and four are a little bit different. It tightens up really quick on the exit into the corner. But a quad-oval doesn’t make much of a difference because the two turns that they consider are on the front straightaway and it’s almost like a tri-oval. It’s almost like one big turn.”

The distance could turn out to be a challenge for him, though. He’s still learning how to race on larger tracks after doing the bulk of his driving at ones that are a mile or shorter.

“I guess you can say my biggest weakness in the Truck Series schedule this year is the mile-and-a-half program, just because of my lack of experience,” Rhodes said. “I’ve only been on an intermediate track a handful of times, and they drive so much differently than any other type of track.”

He also hopes to apply some of the things he learned while finishing sixth at Atlanta Motor Speedway’s 1½-mile tri-oval in late February.

“You have to work on your aero program, the setup – it’s a big combination of things,” Rhodes said. “While Atlanta has a worn out surface, Charlotte is fairly new. (It’s got) a lot of grip, lots of banking, just like Atlanta, so it’s going to be fast, it’s going to be narrow, it’s going to be tight.”

The 19-year-old Louisvillian is hoping for a much better finish than he had last week at Kansas, where a wreck early in the race caused him to place 28th in a 32-truck field.

Because of that disappointing result, Rhodes fell to 17th in the driver point standings. Points will decide who is named Sunoco Rookie of the Year at the end of the season, but his ultimate goal is to earn a spot in the Chase for the Championship.

Only eight drivers will make it into the Chase, and only the Chase drivers will be eligible for the 2016 championship. Who gets in will be determined by which drivers have the most wins over the course of the season.

“We’re still fighting for the wins,” Rhodes said. “The points don’t really matter to us right now. We’re just going for a win every bit we can.”

If more than eight drivers are in contention to make the Chase, points will be the tiebreaker. And it’s possible there could be 22 different winners – five drivers have made it to victory lane in as many races so far. However, Sprint Cup star Kyle Busch, who won at Martinsville, isn’t eligible for the Truck title.

That means Rhodes is trying to build as many points as he can.

“We want to have good finishes, we want to have consistent finishes, we want to be up front every time,” he said.

Rhodes is currently third in points for Rookie of the Year, and he also has winning that honor in his sights. But he hasn’t had a top-10 finish since that sixth at Atlanta after placing seventh in the season opener at Daytona.

So he must stay away from wrecks and other problems to avoid disasters like he had at Kansas. That will start Friday night.

“We need a really good run at Charlotte, whether we’re in the top five or we get a win,” Rhodes said. “We just need a good run so we can start putting some nice trucks together for later in the year and get our wins for the Chase. We’re going to make sure that we win enough races that we’ll be fine.”

 

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