Column: Defending NASCAR Truck Series Champion Ben Rhodes Comes Up Just Short Of A Repeat
Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – AVONDALE, AZ – It was a valiant overtime effort that “just missed” for defending NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion Ben Rhodes, who battled Zane Smith all the way to the checkered flag of the overtime finish for the title race Friday night at Phoenix Raceway.
He ultimately missed out becoming only the series’ second back-to-back champion by a mere .236-second.
Rhodes’ ThorSport Racing team opted for two tires during a pit stop with 10 laps remaining – the only driver among the Championship-eligible foursome to gamble on the two-tire stop. It put his No. 99 ThorSport Toyota out front; but the other three title contenders returned to the track with four fresh tires.
After the restart, the four championship-eligible drivers – Rhodes, Zane Smith, Ty Majeski and Chandler Smith pulled away to lead the field and settle the trophy amongst themselves. And Rhodes gamble looked as if it just may pay off. But as he pulled out to a nearly 2-second advantage on the field, Majeski got loose battling hard just behind Zane Smith bringing the final caution came out and forcing overtime.
“If the caution never came out, I honest to goodness think we could have won,” Rhodes said, noting that with only two new tires compared to his championship competition he essentially became a sitting duck on the final restart
“I’m thankful for those calls I just wish it could have worked out differently,” said Rhodes, who led eight laps and explained he purposely banged the car off the wall on the final lap hoping to make something happen.
“But that’s just the story of two (tires) versus four.”
Front Row Motorsports’ Zane Smith – who has finished runner-up in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series the past two seasons – earned his first championship with Rhodes runner-up, Kyle Busch Motorsports’ Chandler Smith third and Majeski 20th after his late-race spin.
All three of the non-winning championship contenders gave huge dues to Zane Smith’s team. Smith won the pole position for the race and led a race best 77 of the 154 laps. No one begrudged his title run.
“He was the best truck tonight and probably the best truck all year,” Majeski said of Zane Smith.
Chandler Smith agreed.
“They were in their own zip code, really all year,” Smith said. “To be honest with you, they may have been the most deserving of any of us.”
“It’s really disappointing but I can’t be too upset in only my second fulltime season having a shot at it. It just wasn’t meant to be.”
Rhodes finishes out the season ranked second in the championship, officially five points behind Zane Smith. Chandler Smith – who moves into the NASCAR Xfinity Series with Kaulig Racing next year, closes out his Truck Series career with a third-place championship finish, six points back. Majeski is fourth, 23 points back.
Rhodes, 25, answered his 2021 championship season with a victory on the Bristol Dirt Track, eight Top-5 and 13 Top-10 finishes.
It was a break-out year for both Chandler Smith, 20, and Majeski. Smith earned a career high three wins, eight Top-5 and 15 Top-10 finishes in the No. 18 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota. And Majeski, 28,took his first two career series trophies in the No. 66 ThorSport Toyota – with wins in Playoff races in Bristol, Tenn. and Homestead, Fla.
Corey Heim wins Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors
Kyle Busch Motorsport’s driver Corey Heim’s seventh-place finish Friday night at Phoenix Raceway capped an impressive Sunoco Rookie of the Year run. The 20-year-old Georgia driver finished 211 points ahead of Lawless Alan for the rookie title.
Just for good measure, the part-time driver of the No. 51 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota finished out the season with a seven-place finish, leading five laps on the night.
It was the exclamation point on a highly-impressive debut in the series that included a pair of victories – at Atlanta and then from the pole position at Gateway (Ill.). In only 16 starts this season he posted 10 top-10 and six top-five finishes.
Next season Heim will move to the TRICON Garage team – formerly known as Team DGR – driving the No. 11 Toyota Tundra fulltime as a championship entry.
Chastain was fastest in Cup practice at Phoenix
NASCAR Cup Series championship contender Ross Chastain was fastest in Friday’s lone practice for Sunday’s NASCAR Championship Race (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Chastain’s No. 1 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet turned a lap of 133.239 mph to pace the field in the 50-minute session.
Ryan Blaney’s No. 12 Team Penske Ford and Kyle Busch’s No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota were next fastest with Richard Childress Racing’s Tyler Reddick and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick rounding out the top five.
Team Penske’s Joey Logano was second fastest among the four championship eligible drivers, turning in the seventh quickest lap in his No. 22 Ford. Chase Elliott, who won the series championship at Phoenix two years ago, was 10th quickest in the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
Christopher Bell, driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, was 20th quickest.
Kyle Larson is chasing the owner’s title
Reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Larson did not qualify for an opportunity to defend his driver’s title in Sunday’s NASCAR Championship Race at Phoenix Raceway – but he will still be racing for the owner’s trophy.
With his victory at Homestead, Fla. in the penultimate round of the Playoffs – and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott not winning a race during that three-race final push; Larson’s No. 5 Chevrolet is owner’s title eligible, while Elliott competes for the driver’s championship.
“I honestly don’t view it any differently,” Larson said. “I come here with a much focus as I did last season when racing for both championships. Maybe if I hadn’t won last year and didn’t have a championship under my belt already, then I’d come in here with a different mindset. But knowing that I have that on my resume already, it allows me not to be careless with the weekend.
“We’re extremely focused and would love to win that Owner’s Championship for Rick (Hendrick) and bring that big paycheck home too.”
Larson led 107 of 312 laps to win at Phoenix from pole position in last year’s Championship Race- securing his first series title. An engine problem this March relegated him to a 34th-place finish – snapping a six-race streak of top-10 finishes at the one-mile track.
Kyle Busch Motorsports announces 2023 plans
Two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch formally announced the 2023 plans for his Kyle Busch Motorsports Camping World Truck Series team. With Busch moving to Chevrolet power with Richard Childress Racing in the NASCAR Cup Series next year, so too will his truck operation move to Chevrolet.
On Friday, Busch introduced Chase Purdy as the driver of the No. 4 KBM Chevrolet next season and Jack Wood who will steer the No. 51 Chevrolet for 10 races -sharing the seat with Busch and a handful of other – yet to be named – Xfinity and NASCAR Cup Series drivers.
Busch’s team will also maintain a technical alliance with Rev Racing, which announced its first fulltime foray into the Truck Series. With KBM’s technical assistance the Rev Racing team will enter newly-crowned ARCA Menards Series champion Nick Sanchez in the No. 2 Chevrolet next season.