Mark Story

The driver who wants to win at Kentucky Speedway more than anybody

Louisville’s Ben Rhodes, 21, hopes to become the first Kentuckian to win a major NASCAR race at Kentucky Speedway when he races in Thursday night’s Buckle Up In Your Truck 225 in the Camping World Truck Series.
Louisville’s Ben Rhodes, 21, hopes to become the first Kentuckian to win a major NASCAR race at Kentucky Speedway when he races in Thursday night’s Buckle Up In Your Truck 225 in the Camping World Truck Series. Photo courtesy of NASCAR

When Louisville's Joe and Lori Rhodes used to take the middle of their three children, Ben, to go-kart races, the family would often drive by Kentucky Speedway on I-71.

When they did, Ben Rhodes would imagine himself winning a NASCAR race at his home-state track. Now 21 and in his third season driving in NASCAR's Camping World Truck Series, Rhodes is still chasing that dream.

Ben Rhodes II
Louisville’s Ben Rhodes, 21, has finished 13th (2016) and 27th (last year) in his two prior Camping World Truck Series races at Kentucky Speedway. Last year, he won the first stage in the Buckle Up In Your Truck 225 in Sparta but was taken out by a crash on Lap 41 early in the second stage. Tom E. Puskar Associated Press

When the green flag drops on the Buckle Up in Your Truck 225 on Thursday night at 7:30, Rhodes gets another chance to put the No. 41 Carolina Nut Co. Ford F-150 he drives for ThorSport Racing into victory circle in Sparta.

"This isn't like other races for me," Rhodes said last week. "For one thing, I get to sleep in my own bed, which is really nice. But, I have so many friends and fans who come watch me, it's hard for me not to get pretty excited (inside the truck). I'm trying to manage my emotions and stay calmer this year."

The state of Kentucky's experience in NASCAR is shaped by a paradox.

From the time Darrell Waltrip broke into the Cup Series in the early 1970s until well into the 21st century with Michael Waltrip, Jeremy Mayfield and the three Green brothers, David, Mark and Jeff, the commonwealth had drivers competing at NASCAR's highest levels.

Michael Waltrip
Owensboro native Michael Waltrip is the only native Kentuckian to run in a NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series race at Kentucky Speedway. The two-time Daytona 500 champion finished 30th in the 2012 Quaker State 400. Associated Press

What our state did not have then was a Cup race.

In 2011, Kentucky Speedway finally got a Cup date, but by then none of our state's elite drivers — all of whom were from Owensboro — were still Cup Series regulars.

No one else from Kentucky has been able to reach the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series on a full-time basis to replace them.

Since Rhodes stamped himself an up-and-comer in 2014 by winning five races and the season championship in the K&N Pro Series East (in baseball terms, a low Class A circuit), he has seemed Kentucky's great NASCAR hope.

Mark Simendinger with Kyle Busch
Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger, left, chatted with NASCAR star Kyle Busch at a media event to promote the 2017 Quaker State 400. Charles Bertram cbertram@herald-leader.com

With Kentucky Speedway tasked with selling tickets in a challenging environment for motorsports, no one wants to see Rhodes reach the highest level of stock car racing more than track General Manager Mark Simendinger.

"There's no reason in the world he shouldn't be running up front," Simendinger said of Rhodes. "As I watch him, he's an aggressive driver, good on the restarts. For whatever reason, he seems to have, maybe, more than his share of bad luck with engines and other stuff."

Last year, his second season driving trucks for the Sandusky, Ohio-based ThorSport Racing, Rhodes made progress. At Las Vegas, he won his first truck series race ever and finished fifth in the championship standings after making the playoffs.



This year, Rhodes started off strong with four top-10 finishes in the first five races. Even in the one race in which he finished outside the top 10, 12th at Martinsville, Rhodes led 134 laps.

However, the adverse racing fortune that so often seems to find Rhodes then caught up with him again. The Louisvillian finished 16th or worse in four out of five races, a stretch that has dropped him to eighth in the season points.

The good news is Rhodes comes to Kentucky Speedway off a season-best second-place finish at Chicago. "We ran well there. We finally had some stuff go our way," Rhodes said pointedly.

Off the track, things have gone swimmingly this year for Rhodes. He recently became engaged to Caitlynn Hale, his high school sweetheart from Holy Cross in Louisville.

"We're talking about a destination wedding," Rhodes said.

In the shorter term, the destination Rhodes is focused on is the same one he's been eying since he was a little boy: Victory circle at Kentucky Speedway.

The best finish by a native Kentuckian in a NASCAR national touring series race at Kentucky Speedway remains the fifth posted by David Green in the 2007 truck race.

Rhodes has shown flashes of high-level performance in Sparta.

In 2014, Rhodes appeared on the verge of winning an ARCA race at Kentucky, but wrecked while working his way back through the field after giving up the lead on a late caution.

Last year in the truck race, Rhodes won the first stage only to crash early in the second.

In three prior NASCAR races at Kentucky Speedway, Rhodes has finishes of 30th (2015 September Xfinity Series race), 13th and 27th (last two truck races, respectively).

No one who will race in Sparta this week more yearns for victory there than the driver who used to imagine winning at his home-state track as a child.

"I get excited just thinking about what it would feel like to win at Kentucky Speedway," Ben Rhodes said.

Mark Story: 859-231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory

This weekend

At Kentucky Speedway in Sparta

Thursday

7:30 p.m.: NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Buckle Up In Your Truck 225 (Fox Sports 1)

Friday

8 p.m.: NASCAR Xfinity Series Alsco 300 (NBC Sports Network)

Saturday

7:30 p.m.: NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Quaker State 400 (NBC Sports Network)

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