SPARTA, Ky. — It was a great homecoming Thursday night for Ben Rhodes at Kentucky Speedway, as Rhodes used pit strategy to get ahead of Stewart Friesen and held him off to win his second-career Camping World Truck Series race.
Friesen took the lead on lap 88 and led until green flag pit stops during the final stage. But Friesen took two tires on the final stop and Rhodes took fuel only, allowing him to leapfrog and cycle through in the lead ahead of Friesen. Friesen tried to battle back in the final run, getting close but not able to make the move, giving Rhodes, a Kentucky native, the win on his home track.
“I still don’t have any words,” Rhodes said when he got out of the truck in victory lane. “This is amazing. Dreams come true. This has been such a long time coming. These guys deserve this so much.”
Rhodes said the team has been strong all season, but hasn’t been able to show it with its results.
“This is exactly what we needed,” Rhodes said.
The win was Rhodes’ first in 2018, and his first top-10 finish at Kentucky Speedway.
Rhodes said it was extra special to win at his home track.
“This is sweeter than my first win,” he said. “This isn’t Daytona. It hasn’t been around since well before I was born. … It doesn’t have the history that Daytona does. But it has the history for me.”
He said he drives by the track all the time, including when he drives to ThorSport Racing, which is based in Ohio.
The race got off to a slow start, as John Hunter Nemechek and Tyler Matthews got together in turn two, causing Matthews to hit the wall and spin, bringing out the caution on lap one. It was the only caution the entire race that wasn’t due to the conclusion of a stage.
Parker Kligerman also got into the wall late in the race after leading twice for 12 laps, forcing him to retire with damage, but no caution was thrown for the contact.
There were three cautions in the race for 14 laps. Noah Gragson dominated the early part of the race, leading three times for 62 laps. But a loose wheel and a slow pit stop relegated him deep in the field after winning the second stage. He was only able to battle to an eighth-place finish. Rhodes led four times for 38 laps, while Friesen led twice for 37 laps.
Matt Crafton came home third, Brandon Jones fourth and Nemechek rounded out the top five.
Rhodes’ Crew Chief Eddie Troconis said he feels with the win, his team is Championship 4 ready.
“One hundred percent yes,” Troconis said. “We haven’t dominated like the 21 and 16. We have run with them every race. Unfortunate things have happened.”
Troconis said he feels his team should have at least three wins at this point this season. The win will change the way the team handles the next five races before the playoffs.
“It’s definitely a game-changer,” he said. “We’re definitely a championship contender. I’m looking forward to Homestead the whole way.”
The trucks next head to Eldora Speedway where they will battle it out on the only NASCAR dirt race of the year next Wednesday night. Friesen, a dirt veteran, is one of the favorites going into Eldora, but he said after the race that nothing was certain. Last year Friesen dominated the race only to give up the win to Crafton late.
“Cautiously optimistic,” Friesen said about his thoughts going into Eldora. “I have a little bit of an advantage there. Matt’s (Crafton) is good there. There’s some good kids coming in.”
He said his team was going to bring everything it had though.
“We’ve had it circled on the calendar all year,” he said. “I know we’ve built the best piece we can for it. We’re not just bringing whatever’s on the shelf.”
Rhodes said his win this weekend takes the pressure off Wednesday night. “I can go have fun, enjoy it,” Rhodes said. “There’s no pressure on me this time.”
He said he hasn’t had a chance to prepare for the race by running dirt races like his teammate, Crafton, and others have done.
“THe last time I raced on dirt was a year ago,” Rhodes said. “We’ve got a lot of dirt ringers in the field, and Matt Crafton’s become one.”
“Everybody wants to win Eldora,” he said.