Young drivers work for years to get an opportunity at the NASCAR level. Ben Rhodes, an 18-year-old driver, is doing the most with his chance with one of the best Xfinity teams in the sport.
Just a year after winning the K&N Pro Series East Championship with Turner Scott Motorsports, Rhodes got the call from JR Motorsports for a part-time schedule. While he got attention at the K&N level, nothing could prepare Rhodes for driving for Dale Earnhardt Jr., a 12-time Most Popular Driver at the Sprint Cup level.
“I can tell you it’s been a whirlwind,” Rhodes said with a laugh. “Getting used to all this publicity and the way that JR Nation has embraced me is like nothing I’ve never experienced before. Also getting a chance to shadow guys that race for the top teams in NASCAR is just icing on the cake.”
That collection of drivers happen to be one of the most experienced trios at the Sprint Cup level. When Rhodes isn’t in the car, it’s manned by reigning Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick, Hendrick driver Kasey Kahne and, of course, the boss man himself Junior.
Rhodes’ relationship with Junior has been much more than just owner to driver, but he also serves as a mentor. He may be stretched in multiple directions as an owner, driver and celebrity, Earnhardt always finds time to help Rhodes.
“He’s a busy guy, but Junior has gone out of his way several times to help me,” Rhodes said of the JRM owner. “One of the few places I get to see him is at the track because he has so much on his schedule. For him to take time out of his day to spend time with me and teach me things that I have no clue about is amazing.
“I couldn’t ask for a better mentor than Junior or a fan base as devoted as JR Nation. It’s perfect.”
Rhodes learned he would have a ride with JR Motorsports at the beginning of the season, but had to wait before he could start his 10-race schedule. When the Xfinity Series finally split from Sprint Cup at Iowa Speedway, it was finally Rhodes’ chance to shine.
There was only one issue—his graduation ceremony took place on the same weekend in Louisville. Instead of missing out, his principal brought the diploma to the track for him before he took the track.
After his graduation was official, Rhodes finished seventh even after a hiccup on pit road. His top 10 added to two previous top-10 finishes at Daytona and Texas from Earnhardt while Harvick had two wins on the season. Early success set a high bar for Rhodes that he will still be looking to reach at Chicagoland.
Crew chief Dave Elenz, who also works with Harvick, Earnhardt and Kahne, knew Rhodes would rally back from any issue dealt his way. That confidence in the young driver actually came from a Chicagoland test before they arrived at Iowa.
“Oh, there was plenty of nervousness on my side. Not in Ben, necessarily, but more so in myself working with him,” Elenz said of the Chicagoland test. “But once we made one or two runs, I realized, ‘He gets it. He can do this.’ So that all went out for me.
“All I worry about now is giving him a good enough car to race with.”
Rhodes’ next race will take place at Chicagoland on June 20. He’s excited to get back on the track for the second of his 10 races, but Rhodes knows he has a lot to live up to with JR Motorsports.
Last season, Chase Elliott won both Rookie of the Year honors and the Xfinity championship in his first year with JRM. Rhodes won’t get a chance to do that this year as a part-time driver, but is hoping to earn that full-time opportunity with his results on the track.
“To see Chase [Elliott] get to jump straight from JR Motorsports to Hendrick is a huge confidence booster for me,” Rhodes said. “Now I’ve got to perform to get there. … The goal of the rest of the season is to get a full-time spot. There will be a spot with Chase leaving, but I’ve got to earn it.”
Elenz offered some assurance about what’s coming next for Rhodes.
“I expect—and I think the entire team expects—for Ben to thrive,” Elenz said. “… He excels on every restart. He did a good job of finding the fastest lines for his car. That’s the kind of stuff you can’t teach drivers. I’m definitely eager to see how he does the rest of the way.”
With just nine races remaining, Rhodes has some big shoes to fill in the No. 88 car. But thanks to a blooming relationship with Elenz and speed under the hood from Hendrick, it’s clear that Rhodes is well on his way.
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