Defending Kentucky winner says being aggressive but cautious is key to making playoffs

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Buckle Up in Your Truck 225

Ben Rhodes, driver of the #41 The Carolina Nut Co. Ford, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Series Buckle Up in Your Truck 225 at Kentucky Speedway on July 12, 2018 in Sparta, Kentucky. Photo by: Michael Reaves/Getty Images

By Eric Young

SPARTA, Ky. — The last time Gander Outdoors Truck Series driver Ben Rhodes was in victory lane was one year ago at Kentucky Speedway, where he scored his second-career truck series victory and secured a spot in the 2018 playoffs. 

And as Rhodes returns to his home track in Kentucky for the 2019 Buckle Up In Your Truck 225, he finds himself sitting on the playoff bubble, just 13 points ahead of Harrison Burton for the final spot. An outside winner could put Rhodes out, as could another tough weekend like he had at Chicagoland Speedway the last time the trucks competed, where he suffered motor problems before the race even began. 

But Rhodes said he is still confident his team can do what it needs to do to get into the playoffs. 

“I would say (Kentucky isn’t) our best chance, but the stage has certainly been set,” Rhodes told media Thursday. “The last few races on mile and a halves, I think we’ve had the truck to beat, and something happened. Transmission failure in Texas. Didn’t even start the race in Chicago.”

“But if you go back and look at practice, we had the times that never fell off,” Rhodes continued. “And I had the confidence. You have a feeling as a driver when it’s it, it’s it. And I knew at Chicago, that was the truck. And I hadn’t had that feeling very much this year. We’ve been close, but that was the truck. And the stage has been set now. Our best races, things have happened. The same thing happened last year, and we came here and got that win and made it to the playoffs. Similar season. I wish we were already in it.”

Rhodes said the team is balancing the strategy and taking things race by race, racing for points first and wins second.

“We’re not going to short pit,” he said. “We’re not going to come in and try to give up points to get the race win, because that’s a gamble that we can’t afford now being on the bubble. But we’re just going to be aggressive.”

“I honestly don’t even know when the cutoff is,” Rhodes said. “Haven’t looked. Don’t care to know. We’re going to go and approach every race the same. We’re there to win and we’re going to make max points no matter what. We can’t have any issues on pit road or we can’t start far back and give up points in the first stage. We definitely can’t short pit for the second stage and give up any more points either. So we’re just trying to play it smart and the wins will come if we be smart, because there’s a lot of guys who make some questionable moves, very questionable moves, on the racetrack. We don’t want to be one of them.”

The regular season for the trucks wraps up with the Corrigan Oil 200 Aug. 10 at Michigan International Speedway. Counting Thursday’s race at Kentucky Speedway, there are only four races left before the playoffs begin. Rhodes has two sixth-place finishes and one 11th-place finish in his three starts at MIS, and he said he thinks he can get it done there if need be. 

“I do,” he said. “And I want to do well there. There’s tracks that set themselves apart in the schedule that you want to do the best at. Kentucky’s number one. Michigan is probably number two, just because that’s Ford Performance’s headquarters. Everybody from Ford is there. I mean all the bigwigs. And you want to be the guy in victory lane celebrating with them, right? You want that little bit of extra support from them throughout the season. You want to become their favorite. Yeah, Michigan’s probably the second most important race on the schedule for me.”

The Buckle Up In Your Truck 225 starts at 7:30 p.m. from Kentucky Speedway.

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