NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series driver Ben Rhodes does not need to be reminded about the daunting task facing him if he’s to make the playoffs for a third consecutive year.
Despite being sixth place in the points standing, Rhodes faces a must-win situation over the next three races to qualify for the eight-driver field that will race for the series championship. That’s what happens when four drivers behind him in the standings — seventh-place Austin Hill, 10th-place Johnny Sauter, 12th-place Tyler Ankrum and 18th-place Ross Chastain — have qualified for the playoffs ahead of Rhodes by winning races this season.
The 22-year-old Rhodes has three shots left in his No. 99 ThorSport Racing Ford F150, including this Saturday at the Gander RV 150 at Pocono, Aug. 1 at the Dirt Derby at Eldora and Aug. 10 at the Corrigan Oil 200 at Michigan, to win and get in.
“Weâre in a position we didnât think weâd be in,” Rhodes told Autoweek from a promotional stop in Toledo on Wednesday. “I hate to say it wasnât our fault, because everything comes back on yourself. We had a motor issue, we had a transmission issue, I got wrecked by a lapped car. We’ve had a lot of issues that have taken us for now out of the playoffs, but honestly, you get rid of those races and weâd be pretty far up there in points.
“Itâs just a matter of locking ourselves in over these next three races, and once weâre in, weâll be just fine.”
It’s times like these when Rhodes says he’s all for NASCAR expanding the Truck Series field just a little from its current number of eight drivers.
“I wouldnât mind it,” he said. “It would make the playoffs more interesting. Itâs funny because thereâs a lot of guys that are in the playoffs right now who have won one race because theyâve gotten lucky or whatever it may be — or they just havenât had anything bad happen to them this year.
“Thereâs guys that are in the playoffs that I honestly donât feel like should be there. Itâs just a tough situation weâre in, where theyâre in and weâre not. We got to do whatever we can to get in.”
Rhodes has a recent history of near misses at the tracks coming up on the schedule. He finished sixth at Michigan last year and was runner-up at Pocono in 2017.
“I honestly do believe in my heart that weâre going to win one of the next three, so I havenât really been feeling any extra pressure,” Rhodes said. “And I donât think anyone on the team has really felt the pressure. We just know that weâre going to be able to do exactly what we need to do.”
Win or lose over these next three races, Rhodes is still well on his way to a third consecutive top-10 season finish in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series. That would make some young drivers anxious about when that phone might ring with that call up to the next rung of the NASCAR ladder.
Rhodes, however, has learned a thing or two about timelines in his four-plus years in the Truck Series.
“I used to have a timeline for myself,” he said. “I used to be the youngest guy in every single series I got in, and I always hit the timeline for myself. But the timeline is not really up to you, itâs about what happens to you. The stars kind of have to align. The right opportunities and doors have to open at the right time.
“Everything has to work out perfect for you to be in a situation like that where you can get into a race-winning car on the Cup side. But in my eyes, the stars have already aligned to give me this awesome opportunity at ThorSport. If it wasnât for ThorSport Racing, I donât know if Iâd even be racing right now. Iâm eternally grateful for that. I get to go out and do what I love and race for wins every weekend. It doesnât get better than that.
“And whatâs fun for meÂ is knowing one of these next three races weâre going to win. Thereâs no ifs, andsÂ or buts about it.”
In the meantime, it’s about living in the moment.
“Everybody wants to force their success or their movement through the NASCAR ranks, and I just donât think you can do that,” he said. “Iâve tried to do it myself, and you have to go where the doors are open. If thereâs no doors open, you canât really go knock one down. It doesnât really work like that.
“I think thatâs one of the keys to success in NASCAR — knowing your place at the time. Youâve got to run your own race.”