SONOMA, Calif. — Ben Rhodes will be the first person to admit he had no plans of making his NASCAR Cup Series debut this season, let alone doing so at a road course.
However, when the opportunity fell into his lap to fill in for Justin Haley – the regular driver of the No. 77 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet – Rhodes wasn’t about to turn it down.
The Louisville, Ky., native will step into the driver’s seat Sunday at Sonoma Raceway instead of Haley, who will be competing with the NASCAR Xfinity Series at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course one day earlier.
Haley’s Xfinity Series championship quest took priority for the Winamac, Ind., native, leaving an open opportunity for Rhodes to break into the highest level of American stock car racing for one weekend.
It’s a deal Rhodes told SPEED SPORT Wednesday is comfortable for him, given that he has known many of the personnel at Spire Motorsports since his early NASCAR Camping World Truck Series days with ThorSport Racing – the team he continues to race with full time.
“To me, this deal just felt natural,” he explained. “The folks at Spire (Motorsports, owned by Spire Sports + Entertainment), I’ve known them for a long time. Kevin (Bellicourt, crew chief) was supposed to be crew chiefing me, so it’s obviously unfortunate with the lug nut penalty that he got … that he’ll be on the sidelines this weekend, but he’s still going to have his hand on everything.
“He was my crew chief back in 2016 at ThorSport so he and I have that familiarity,” Rhodes noted. “I’ve known these people for a long time now and have a long history with them. As a driver, when you have people you’ve worked with like that … my interior guy this weekend, he was with us in 2017 at ThorSport … things like that just make it that much easier to hop into a deal like this and do it.
“This team has been getting better over the years. They’re still not able to go out and just dominate and straight up beat anybody for a win, but they’re able to go out there and get really good finishes for where they’re at and I think they do a good job of making the most with what they have. So for me to go with friendly faces and an easy set of goals for the weekend makes it easy for a guy like me to go out there and try to maximize the opportunity.
“I’m excited. This is going to be fun.”
While the situation may be comfortable, Rhodes said it was the last phone call he was expecting to get.
“It kind of caught me off guard, to be honest,” Rhodes admitted. “I never really planned on this or thought anything about it. I’ve always been pretty open with people that I’ve been happy here at ThorSport. I’ve been having a good time racing for a championship this year, so I haven’t been actively out looking for anything because I love where I’m at. For an opportunity like this to come to me was pretty cool.
“I was on the phone with somebody when I saw a phone number come through that I hadn’t seen in a while, so I answered it, and it was T.J. (Puchyr, co-owner) from Spire,” Rhodes recalled. “It was good to catch up with him and then by the end of the conversation, he said, ‘What do you think about running our car one weekend at Sonoma?’ And I told him, ‘Hey, it sounds good … but I’ve got a few concerns.’
“I told them, one, we don’t have practice or qualifying and, two, I’ve never been there, but they wanted me to do this, and I’m honored they trust me to do the job while Justin is at Mid-Ohio this weekend.”
With no prior Cup Series experience to lean on going into his first race weekend at Sonoma, Rhodes — a winner of two Truck Series races this season — is going to be learning on the fly as he races against the best in the business for the first time.
That also means he has no concrete expectations ahead of Sunday’s race.
“It’s just going to be about taking what we can get,” said Rhodes. “I don’t think you can say that this car should run here this weekend, especially without me being in it and knowing what the team is fully capable of. I don’t know what they should really be doing on a road course. They make the most of everything they have and they’ve done really well for their program and for their budget … but with that being said, it’s not like we can say they’re going to finish 30th this week, or 20th or 15th … I don’t know what that really looks like.
“For me, I’m just going to go in there and say, ‘Hey, this is how fast the car is,’ and wherever we feel the car is on pace, I want to try and be a little bit better than that,” he added. “You always want to be a little bit better than what the car will finish, but if you finish where the car is capable of running, that’s OK, too. I think that comes from being a veteran and realizing that and understanding it. That’s what leads to good, solid races.
“I don’t have a goal. I’m just going out there to really maximize the points day, the winnings, and to finish the race without any damage to the race car so that the team can get Justin back in the car and go on to the next one. I just want to do them a good job and make sure that they don’t miss a beat.”