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Louisville NASCAR driver Rhodes feels urgency to win races in 2017

Louisville NASCAR driver Ben Rhodes turns 20 Tuesday. On Friday, he will begin his second season as a full-time driver in the Camping World Truck Series when he pilots the No. 27 Toyota Tundra in the NextEra Energy Resources 250 at Daytona International Speedway.
Louisville NASCAR driver Ben Rhodes turns 20 Tuesday. On Friday, he will begin his second season as a full-time driver in the Camping World Truck Series when he pilots the No. 27 Toyota Tundra in the NextEra Energy Resources 250 at Daytona International Speedway. Photo courtesy of NASCAR

Ben Rhodes will celebrate his 20th birthday Tuesday.

Yet after finishing 14th last year in his rookie season in NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series, the driver from Louisville feels the clock ticking in terms of showing the results that will keep him advancing toward his goal of competing in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

“Unless you are a Jimmie Johnson, whose legacy is known. Or a Tony Stewart. Or guys like Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth who are just proven veterans, then it is always hard,” Rhodes said at a Kentucky Speedway preseason media event. “The clock is always ticking on you. You always have to perform. If you don’t, they will find somebody who can.”

On Friday, when the green flag drops on the NextEra Energy Resources 250 truck series race at Daytona International Speedway, Rhodes will begin a crucial season in his career.

In 2014, Rhodes stamped himself a NASCAR up-and-comer when he won five races and the season championship in the K&N Pro Series East (in baseball terms, NASCAR’s Class A).

Since then, he has yet to replicate that success.

Two years ago, Rhodes had two top-10 finishes in 10 races in the Xfinity Series (Class AAA) in a part-time driving gig for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s JR Motorsports.

In 2016, driving full time for ThorSport Racing in the truck series (Class AA), Rhodes had only two top 5s and five top 10s in 23 starts. The Kentuckian led but 55 of the 3,162 laps he ran last year.

A June fire that did major damage to ThorSport’s race shop in Sandusky, Ohio — and some of the team’s race trucks — hampered Rhodes’ season. After some good runs early, including a fourth place at Iowa Speedway and a second at Gateway Motorsports Park (St. Louis), Rhodes did not finish better than 12th over the season’s final nine races.

“Last year, we wanted the championship, we wanted the Rookie of the Year, we wanted all of this,” Rhodes said. “At the beginning of the year, (those goals) seemed very tangible. As the year went on, we experienced the fire, we experienced a lot of adversity. I wouldn’t say it destroyed our program, but it certainly pushed us back and made it very hard to compete.”

Though Rhodes is back with ThorSport in 2017, he says little about his racing program will be the same. The number on his truck, 41 last year but 27 this season, is among the changes. Eddie Troconis, who was crew chief for Cameron Hayley as he put up six top-5 finishes last season in trucks, will be atop the pit box for Rhodes this year.

“Everything is brand new. That was pretty much the reason for staying there, that everything would be brand new and different from last year,” Rhodes said. “We really need to make a big change because last year’s performances were not anywhere what we wanted or expected.”

NASCAR’s new points system, with races divided into three segments and points awarded to the winners of the segments, seems designed to encourage more driver aggression. Yet Rhodes thinks an area he needs to improve on from 2016 is better regulating his on-track aggressiveness.

“You need to be patient in the sense that, when you move people (so you can pass them), you need to do it correctly,” Rhodes said. “You need to do it at the right time. You have to be aggressive to knock people out of the way. You have to be aggressive to make those holes and to take it three-wide and do all the crazy stuff that you have to do to pass. But, if you need to wait a lap or two for the opportune time (to try to pass), you do it.”

Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger credited Rhodes’ presence in the truck race at the Sparta track last July — the Louisvillian started ninth and finished 13th — for positively impacting attendance. Simendinger relishes the thought of Rhodes someday giving Kentucky Speedway “a home driver” in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

“There’s nobody who wants Ben Rhodes in Cup more than we do,” Simendinger says.

A breakout season in the truck series in 2017 would lower the odds of Rhodes fulfilling his Cup dreams.

“I think we can get three to four wins,” Rhodes says. “I think that’s a realistic goal.”

Season opener

NextEra Energy Resources 250

7:30 p.m. Friday at Daytona International Speedway (FS1)

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