Carl Edwards' exit could put Christopher Bell on fast track to XFINITY
How long do you think it took Christopher Bell to do the math? Carl Edwards ' announcement of his abrupt exit from the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has had a ripple effect that could go far beyond the promotion of Daniel Suárez to a full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series ride. Because Suárez will fill Edwards' seat in NASCAR’s premier series, he won't defend his NASCAR XFINITY Series title. Bell will be one of the beneficiaries of the changes in Suárez's schedule. "Right now, we have a solid plan for Christopher," said Dave Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development (TRD) USA. "He exceeded our expectations. He got all the way to Miami (the championship race of the inaugural NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Chase at Homestead-Miami Speedway ). This year, we expect him to get to Miami and win. "And if circumstances play out, we really would like to get him into an XFINITY car for a couple of races. We're working hard on that, and we're optimistic, but that could very well be a domino that falls. Those are helpful -- those couple of races where there's zero pressure, but it gives you a look at the next step." Last week at the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals in Tulsa , Oklahoma, the 22-year-old Bell wasn't thinking about the next step. He was contemplating the next race, trying to become the first native Oklahoman to win the marquee event of midget racing since Andy Hillenburg accomplished the feat in 1994. (And, no, the Andy Hillenburg in question is not the Indiana-born driver who ran NASCAR races and later bought Rockingham Speedway . The Andy Hillenburg who won the Chili Bowl is a sprint car racer from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.) Bell was also thinking about the upcoming season in the Camping World Truck Series, where his own expectations mirror those of the Toyota brass. "I guess it could open it up for me," Bell said of Edwards' departure. "But, honestly, I haven't even really thought about it, because my schedule's already set, obviously, with Kyle Busch Motorsports. That's where my focus is, and we're going to aim really hard to win races this year. "We came close on the championship last year, but we didn't win many races -- we won one time. My goal is to win races with KBM." That doesn’t mean, however, that Bell wasn't enthused about the prospect of getting his first taste of the XFINITY Series. "That's great," he said during a break between features at the Chili Bowl. "That's good that I might get a couple of races -- that's really good." The extent of Bell's participation in XFINITY races depends to some degree on sponsorship. Wilson said Suárez's primary sponsor, Arris, which also sponsored Edwards, will be confined to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup car, even though Suárez will still run between eight and 12 XFINITY races. "If he (Bell) does what he should do in '17, then, naturally, we would love to get him into an XFINITY ride in '18," Wilson said. "Yes, this could play into Christopher's further development and get him one or two more XFINITY races that we may not have foreseen prior to the news (about Edwards)." Last Saturday night, Bell fulfilled his long-standing dream of winning the Chili Bowl, noting that competing in the Truck Series had informed his approach to dirt-track racing. Biding his time in the 55-lap "A" Main, Bell started on the front row and passed polesitter Justin Grant on Lap 26. He stayed out front the rest of the way. "In years past, it's been attack, attack, attack," Bell said. "This year, it didn't have to be that way. I just ran hard enough to stay in position but not get into trouble. I was able to ride behind Justin there for a while. I knew the bottom was slowing down quite a bit and I kept trying the top. I tried it two times and I almost got passed, so I knew it was going to be a matter of too early or too late at the top. "I started to watch the big screen. (Eventual runner-up Daryn) Pittman was running the top at the time. I knew he was in eighth, and I looked up and he was third or fourth so I knew I had to go. Once I went, I was able to squeak by Justin on the straightaway, and then it was a matter of just not screwing up." That sort of patience is emblematic of Bell's maturation as a driver. Early last season, he didn't look like a championship contender. In the second race of 2016, at Atlanta, his aggressiveness led to a wreck that collected Suárez, his teammate, and fellow Toyota driver and two-time series champion Matt Crafton . But Bell won at Gateway Motorsports Park nine races into the schedule, and he finished outside the top 10 just twice in the last 16 events.
Christopher Bell claims 2017 Chili Bowl victory
Photo: Toyota Racing Christopher Bell rang in the start of his 2017 season with perhaps the biggest win of his burgeoning racing career -- the 31st annual Chili Bowl. Bell, a full-time driver for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series , won what many consider to be the world's most prestigious sprint car race after midnight ET on Sunday morning. Over the course of a week, he outlasted 364 other drivers who entered -- a Chili Bowl record -- and ended Rico Abreu's two-year reign as champion. Bell is regarded as one of the finer dirt racers in the country, and he was equally adept on pavement as well. The 22-year-old advanced to the Championship Round in the inaugural NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Chase as a full-time rookie in 2016. In 2015, he won at Eldora Speedway in his third career series start. Making the victory even sweeter is that Bell is an Oklahoma native -- he was born in Norman, about 125 miles southwest of the event site in Tulsa . "Oh my God, I just won the Chili Bowl," Bell said after climbing out of his machine. "This was a long time coming and a dream come true." C Bell up on the wheel tonight! #cbnationals @CBellRacing — Chase Elliott (@chaseelliott) January 15, 2017 Nice job C Bell! — William Byron (@WilliamByron) January 15, 2017 Daryn Pittman, a fellow Oklahoma native, finished second to Bell with Justin Grant, Tanner Thompson and Jake Swanson rounding out the top five. In all, four drivers with recent NASCAR experience qualified for the championship race. Abreu finished 11th after starting 25th in the 25-driver championship field, needing a champion's provisional to make the final field. Roush Fenway Racing 's Ricky Stenhouse Jr . finished 16th and Chase Briscoe, the newest full-time driver for Brad Keselowski Racing, was 22nd in the A-Main. The Chili Bowl is a week-long event with five days of practice and qualifying events to set the 25-car field for the main event. Saturday started with two O-Feature races -- the top four finishers from each O-Feature event advanced to the corresponding N-Feature races. Then the top four finishers from each N-Feature race advance into the M-Feature races. The format was used all the way up to the A-Main finale, although drivers also could qualify for the A-Main throughout the week. Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver Kyle Larson , who has stayed behind the wheel all offseason, including a racing trip to Australia -- failed to advance to the championship race after making the A-Main for five consecutive years. Abreu did not make it out of the F-Feature due to a tire issue, but he received a past champion's provisional. Stenhouse, another Chili Bowl veteran, won his B-Feature to advance into the championship race. Justin Allgaier , who will drive in the NASCAR XFINITY Series for JR Motorsports in 2017, was ousted after the C-Feature. His most eventful moment of the week, though, came Friday when his car flipped on the last lap of his race.
Well-traveled Larson poised for quick start to 2017
RELATED: Driver tracker " Key story lines for 2017 MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- The offseason -- typically designated as a time of rest for most involved in the NASCAR industry -- has been atypically busy for Kyle Larson . Between flying halfway around the world for a holiday spent racing sprint cars in Australia to an annual pilgrimage coming next week to the prestigious Chili Bowl Nationals in Oklahoma, there's been little down time. At least he won't have to spend the weeks leading into the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series opener having to answer that pesky question from offseasons past: How close are you to that first win? "I didn't even think about that," Larson said Thursday at a team photo shoot, smiling at the revelation. "Yeah, this is the first offseason where I haven't been asked about a first win. Just hope we can get the second one early on in the year and not necessarily relax, but can venture out and try things where we haven't gotten the opportunity to do that in my previous three years of racing. If we can get a win early, I think it'll really benefit us when it comes to the Chase." The 24-year-old driver is prepping for his fourth season at Chip Ganassi Racing with at least one career goal crossed off, visiting Victory Lane for the first time in NASCAR's top division at Michigan International Speedway last August. The triumph marked the high point of his first season working with new crew chief Chad Johnston on the No. 42 Chevrolet team. That milestone helped push Larson to his first appearance in the Chase playoffs, a postseason run that ended after the first round of eliminations. This season, Larson hopes a quick start out of the gate might be a sign of bigger things in 2017. "Last year was his first year with our team and we started off a little slow," Larson said. "I think with a new crew chief coming in, it's hard for them to get things where they want it and bringing things from the team he was with before into our organization. Once he got those things in motion, we picked up some speed and got really good throughout the summer. Tapered off a little bit before the Chase and then picked it right back up at the end of the Chase. "I hope we can start next year off good. That's been a place where we've struggled in the past in our organization -- we'll end the year really good, have high expectations to start the year and underperform for a couple of months, then work really hard to gain points back to make the Chase. I hope we can start the mile-and-a-halfs off where we ended the season and we should have a good year." The new year is already off to a roaring start for Larson, who spent much of the holiday break Down Under with sightseeing and racing at Sydney Speedway, not far from the Aussie metropolis. A side trip to New Zealand for more sprint-car extracurriculars ended up in a washout, but Larson said the whole experience -- including a surprisingly smooth 14-hour flight for his 2-year-old son, Owen -- was unforgettable. "It's always fun to get to go to new places," Larson said. "I've been to Australia once before but a different part. It was cool to race close to Sydney, get to go into the city one day, go to the zoo and then also get to race a sprint car, which I don't get to do a whole lot." That slate promises to pick up next week when Larson and other dirt-savvy NASCAR regulars visit Tulsa for the Chili Bowl, a sprint-car prize that's eluded him in his career thus far. Though the indoor race is a spectator's bonanza, Larson's quick to scuttle any notion of watching from the sidelines. "Oh, I'm racing," Larson said. "I think this is like my ninth or 10th year running, so we practice on Monday and then my prelim night's on Tuesday and then each night, Tuesday through Friday, is a preliminary night and you gain an idea where you'll start on Saturday. Haven't won the Chili Bowl yet. My good buddy, Rico (Abreu), has won the last two of them, so hopefully I can go get a win there, too."
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Kyle Larson, Target give back in many ways
The NASCAR racing season ended last month but someone forgot to tell Kyle Larson . The Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates driver will be on the road for the holidays, traveling with his family to Sydney, Australia to race sprint cars for a week or so. Once he returns stateside, he'll be heading to Tulsa , Oklahoma, for the annual Chili Bowl Nationals Jan. 9-14. There are times when the 24-year-old NASCAR driver isn't behind the wheel. Wednesday was one of those rare occasions. Larson, along with members of his No. 42 team, spent the afternoon at the Milton Boys and Girls Club in Charlotte, handing out early Christmas gifts provided by sponsor Target. "Target (does) a lot for different communities and charities," Larson said. "It was cool to come here and give these kids gifts. … They had a good time; they were all smiling, dancing on (one of the games) over there." A wide variety of board games, electronic games and even a virtual reality unit were among the items delivered. "It feels good to do a small part of giving back," said Larson, who will begin his fourth season as a full-time competitor in NASCAR's premier series in 2017. "Target is the one donating all the gifts, I'm just donating my time and having a good time with it. I've gotten to do a lot of stuff with them this year, donating books to different schools, a lot of toys. … It's been a lot of fun. It's the first year I've really gotten to do this stuff more often and I'm hoping to do a lot more next year." According to team officials, Larson and Target joined together in '16 to provide toys to children affected by flooding in West Virginia; delivered 50 backpacks and back-to-school supplies to a disadvantaged elementary school in Darlington, South Carolina; and visited two elementary schools in Dallas, Texas, to donate gift cards and books in support of Texas Motor Speedway 's Speeding to Read program. Additionally, Larson and Target representatives visited Target House at St. Jude Children's Hospital and also donated library supplies to a school in the Phoenix area. Wednesday's gathering helped Larson, who hails from Elk Grove, California, get in the Christmas spirit. He and his family, girlfriend Katelyn Sweet and son Owen, will move up their holiday visits with other family members due to their upcoming trip to Australia. "My favorite time of the holiday season is just getting to spend time with a lot of the family I don't really get to see throughout the year," he said. "We travel so often that I don't ever really get to go home to California and see them. … So we'll go to California next week and get to hang out with all of them." Larson won his first premier series event in 2016, at Michigan International Speedway , and qualified for NASCAR’s championship-determining Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup . Although he was one of four drivers eliminated after the Round of 16, he finished a career-best ninth in the final points standings.
Larson honors country star with throwback scheme
RELATED: See Larson's throwback for Sprint Cup " Buy tickets CONCORD, N.C. (Aug. 25, 2016) – Like peanut butter and jelly, or the Southern 500 and Labor Day weekend, country music and NASCAR seemingly go hand in hand. For this year's NASCAR XFINITY Series (NXS) race at Darlington Raceway , Chip Ganassi Racing driver Kyle Larson will be getting a retro makeover on his No. 42 ENEOS Chevrolet Camaro based on a car driven by country music legend Marty Robbins, who also frequently ran the No. 42. While some sing about the things they'd like to do, Robbins strapped on a helmet and did the thing he loved to do, which was race. The country singer, best known for his songs "El Paso" and "Big Iron," competed in a total of 35 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races from 1966-1982, and also ran one race in the Grand National East Series. Robbins was a well-respected driver among his competitors and his familiar purple and gold car was always a fan favorite when he raced at the Nashville Fairgrounds . This weekend, ENEOS and Chip Ganassi Racing are excited to bring back Robbins' familiar paint scheme as Darlington once again celebrates NASCAR's history with a throwback-themed weekend.
Future stars unveiled in NASCAR Next 2016-17 class
RELATED: Get to know the 2016-17 NASCAR Next class DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (May 17, 2016) – Two are following in the footsteps of their former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driving fathers. One is a long-time racer who competed on the reality television show "Survivor," and later added a degree from Stanford University. Another is one of the fastest rising stock car drivers in the Midwest. There is even a pair of international phenoms. From Charlotte to New York City, and from Quebec to Israel, the 11 drivers who were announced as the 2016-17 NASCAR Next class today are primed for a successful and impactful future in NASCAR. This is the sixth edition of NASCAR Next, an industry-wide initiative designed to spotlight to best and brightest rising young stars in racing. "The NASCAR Next program has introduced current stars such as Kyle Larson , Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney to the NASCAR fan, and we believe this year’s class has the same potential," said Jill Gregory, NASCAR senior vice president of marketing and industry services. "These drivers have shown the talent and intangibles to climb the NASCAR ladder, and we look forward to watching their careers grow." This year's NASCAR Next class was selected through an evaluation process that included input from industry executives, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Drivers Council and media. Drivers must be between the ages of 15-25, have tangible and expressed goals in eventual competition in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and demonstrate the potential to realize that goal. MORE: Full NASCAR Next coverage The following drivers have been selected to the 2016-17 NASCAR Next class: Harrison Burton ( @HBurtonRacing ) - The 15-year-old from Huntersville, North Carolina, is the son of former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Jeff Burton . He has climbed to the NASCAR K&N Pro Series after setting the record last year as the youngest Division I race winner in NASCAR Whelen All-American Series history. Collin Cabre ( @CollinCabre12 ) – In his second season driving for Rev Racing and the NASCAR Drive for Diversity in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series, the 22-year-old from Tampa, Florida, captured his first career win last October after making the successful move from racing sprint cars. Spencer Davis ( @SpencerDavis_29 ) – The 17-year-old Dawsonville, Georgia, driver has shown a proficiency in nearly everything he’s raced. After winning the Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award last season in the NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour, Davis has transitioned to the NASCAR K&N Pro Series, where he has established himself as a championship contender with top six finishes in his first seven series starts dating back to last season. Alon Day ( @Alon_Day ) – One of two international drivers on the list, Day is the first NASCAR Whelen Euro Series driver to earn a NASCAR Next recognition. Day, 24, from Ashdod, Israel, completed his first full season in the Whelen Euro Series as championship runner-up. Including the final two rounds of 2015, Day has won four of the last eight Elite 1 races and is again a threat win the title. Tyler Dippel ( @Tyler_Dippel ) – An accomplished dirt racer, the 16-year-old from Wallkill, New York, has already scored his first NASCAR K&N Pro Series East victory in March. Dippel previously competed in the DIRTcar Racing Series in the northeast, earning the rookie of the year title and becoming the youngest race winner in that series. Todd Gilliland ( @ToddGilliland_ ) – The son of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series veteran David Gilliland , the 16-year-old from Sherrills Ford, North Carolina, made NASCAR history by winning his first four career NASCAR K&N Pro Series starts. He became the youngest winner in series history with his victory last fall, and has followed it up with wins in both the K&N Pro Series East and West season openers this year. Noah Gragson ( @NoahGragson ) – The 17-year-old from Las Vegas finished second in the championship standings last year in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West, collecting the Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award in the process. Gragson followed the path set by Kyle and Kurt Busch , learning his trade in the Legends and Bandolero Divisions at The Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway . He earned a pair of K&N Pro Series West wins in 2015 and is again a championship contender. Gary Klutt ( @Garyklutt ) – The second Canadian to be named to the program and the first full-time driver from the NASCAR Pinty’s Series, Klutt represents a crop of young drivers making an impact on Canada’s championship stock car series. The 23-year-old from Halton Hills, Ontario, earned his first career pole and win last year en route to being named the Jostens Rookie of the Year. He finished fifth in series points and will be among the title contenders when the series opens later this month. Julia Landauer ( @julialandauer ) – Landauer, 24, from New York City, got her start racing a variety of cars – from Formula BMW to Ford Focus Midgets to stock cars. The versatile Landauer was a contestant on the hit reality show 'Survivor' before graduating from Stanford in 2014 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Science, Technology, and Society. She became the first female to win a Limited Late Model division championship at Motor Mile Speedway in Radford, Virginia, last year before graduating to the K&N Pro Series West this season. Ty Majeski ( @TyMajeski ) – The 21-year-old from Seymour, Wisconsin, showcased his ability with a dominating display at Florida’s New Smyrna Speedway in February, collecting three wins and earning the 2016 Super Late Model championship in the 50th Annual World Series of Stock Car Racing. Majeski added a NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Late Model track record and victory in the FrostBuster at Wisconsin’s LaCrosse Fairgrounds Speedway in April. Matt Tifft ( @Matt_Tifft ) – A development driver for Joe Gibbs Racing , the 19-year-old from Hinckley, Ohio, is driving part-time in the NASCAR XFINITY Series for JGL Racing as well as JGR, and racing in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series for Red Horse Racing. He earned his first career pole in the NASCAR XFINITY Series at Talladega earlier this month. Since its inception in 2011, 27 of the 35 drivers who have been selected as part of the program have gone on to compete in one of NASCAR’s three national series. Nearly a third of the drivers have made a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start, with nine drivers winning a NASCAR national series race. The last two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sunoco Rookies of the Year have been NASCAR Next alum, as are the top two contenders for this year’s award: Blaney and Elliott. The last three Sunoco Rookie of the Year winners in both the NASCAR XFINITY Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series were also part of the NASCAR Next program. For more information, visit NASCARNext.com and make sure to follow the drivers on Twitter and on the track. About NASCAR The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, Inc. (NASCAR) is the sanctioning body for the No. 1 form of motorsports in the United States. NASCAR consists of three national series (the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series™, NASCAR XFINITY Series™, and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series™), four regional series, one local grassroots series and three international series. The International Motor Sports Association™ (IMSA®) governs the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship™, the premier U.S. sports car series. Based in Daytona Beach, Fla., with offices in eight cities across North America, NASCAR sanctions more than 1,200 races in more than 30 U.S. states, Canada, Mexico and Europe. For more information visit http://www.NASCAR.com and http://www.IMSA.com , and follow NASCAR on Facebook , Twitter , Instagram , and Snapchat ('NASCAR').
Ben Rhodes: Chasing dreams on-track and on-camera
Ask some of the people who work most closely with Ben Rhodes about him and you'll get the same sense -- that the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series rookie isn't an ordinary 19-year-old. Ask his crew chief. "I've known this kid since he was 15 years old and he was always very mature, very respectful and acts older than he is," Kevin Bellicourt says. "I mean, the way he has shown maturity in the race car and everything around that, I do forget that he is 19 years old." Ask the sports director who co-hosts Rhodes' TV show -- yes, his own TV show -- in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. "I'll look at him sometimes and I'll just be like, 'Look, stop it. Just be a kid.' But he's not," Kent Spencer says. "He's definitely wise beyond his years." The wisdom has served Rhodes well in all facets of his budding NASCAR career, which carried him to the K&N Pro Series East championship in 2014 and a stint with the NASCAR Next youth initiative that identifies the sport's up-and-coming stars. The next step is a full-season campaign this year with powerhouse ThorSport Racing in the Truck Series, which makes its next stop Friday night at Kansas Speedway . Even in casual conversation, Rhodes' composure comes through in a calm that belies his age, less than one year removed from receiving a high school diploma. It's a collected nature that helps him feel just as at home in front of a TV camera's lens as he does behind the wheel. Rhodes doesn't have to balance a racing career with schoolwork any more, but his focus is far from singular. "It's full-time racing now, and it's full-time everything that has to do with racing, not just being on the track or working on the cars, but sponsors, events, fans -- which is cool," Rhodes says. "I really like that aspect of it. You can't be on the track without that." The story of how Rhodes came to be on the track isn't unlike the tale of other youngsters with a dream and a heavy right foot. But it's the unique wrinkles of his narrative that make Rhodes' story ready for prime time. Early beginnings Around their home state, where the term "racing" is most commonly associated with Thoroughbreds, it's fitting that Rhodes' career choice was galvanized by figuratively getting back on the horse. Rhodes had barely entered grade school when the itch for speed struck him. He recalls helping his older brother, Chris, try to emulate his father's practice of removing the governor from their go-karts, much to their mother's dismay. The recreational -- and occasionally unrestricted -- karting soon led to competition. "We were having a blast around the house," Rhodes says, "but when we hit the race track, it didn't really click at first and it took awhile before I got in a wreck to figure it out." Rhodes recalls crashing his first time out -- the leader coming around to lap him, clipping one of his back wheels and landing on top of his kart. The wreck naturally made him gun-shy, but it took another altercation to set his course toward making racing a lifelong pursuit. Rhodes' family vividly recalls that incident at the Clark County, Indiana, 4-H Fairgrounds , where the 7-year-old driver was on the receiving end of an intentional wreck for the first time. His family worked to repair his kart while the youngster seethed, intent on retaliation. But as Rhodes began to furiously charge back through the pack, something changed in his demeanor. "Once I passed the other guy, I didn't even think about wanting revenge or whatever, I just started having a blast," Rhodes says. "Passing cars was a lot more fun than getting passed, and that's when it all started clicking for me. We started working on set-ups and had just an awesome time doing it. It was an awesome family experience." Into NASCAR Those first forays led to progression and an eventual place in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East at age 16. After a partial first season, his first full campaign in 2014 netted a remarkable five victories and six pole positions, with Bellicourt serving as his car chief. The performance drew the interest of JR Motorsports, which fielded Rhodes in a 10-race slate in the NASCAR XFINITY Series in 2015. After a seventh-place series debut at Iowa Speedway in May, Rhodes endured largely uneven results in the JRM No. 88, despite help from the team's fleet of Sprint Cup drivers -- Dale Earnhardt Jr ., Kevin Harvick , Chase Elliott and Regan Smith . "I learned so much from them, but the problem is it was hard to apply it," Rhodes says of his sporadic schedule. "You have to be in the car feeling it. I had a month between times (in the car) more than once before I could actually feel what they were talking about or actually apply it. All the momentum that you had was lost. It was just really hard for me to get adjusted to and just hard to keep the learning going, but the jump, I felt like if I ran the whole season, the jump maybe wouldn't have been that bad." An offseason to regroup also led to a new opportunity, as one of the newest faces at ThorSport Racing, a championship-caliber team with an evolving driver roster. In the offseason, Rhodes joined two-time Truck Series champ Matt Crafton , second-year driver Cameron Hayley and fellow rookie Rico Abreu under the watch of team owners Duke and Rhonda Thorson. The team's drivers have perennially lauded the resources that the Thorsons provide to compete at a high level. Rhodes found this out early on, when they sought his input to hire a crew chief for his No. 41 Toyota. He immediately thought of Bellicourt, who had just finished helping William Byron as crew chief for his K&N East championship run in 2015. In some respects, the job was a tougher sell than most, requiring Bellicourt to move from North Carolina to within reach of ThorSport's Sandusky, Ohio, shop. But it was also a commitment for his wife, his 11-month-old daughter and the baby the couple are expecting in early June. But the opportunity to move from the regional and touring level to a NASCAR national series was too good to pass up. After taking the leap, the driver-crew chief reunion went seamlessly. "The communication is back to where it was and it's like we never even left off," Rhodes says. "I remember the first time that he was up at ThorSport and I was there and we were having such a good time. None of the guys up there had seen us run before or work together, so when we came up there, they were like, 'We've got a feeling that you just brought your best friend in to work on these race cars.' That was kind of cool that we hit it off right away once again." Says Bellicourt: "We just have a good time. I understand what he's saying when he's talking about the truck, and he understands when I'm trying to make a point with him. His understanding of the race car has just come a long way since I first met him when he was 15. He understands that a lot, and all the set-up stuff. That just helps a lot, too, with the driver having that knowledge. We've just been able to roll with it so far this season." Rolling with it has meant gradual gains in the early stages of the year, but one accomplishment stands out -- winning the pole position last month at Martinsville Speedway . Though a late-race wreck saddled Rhodes with a midpack 16th-place result, the speed shown in qualifying and out front for 42 laps made a solid impression. "It felt really good to get the pole because it validates what we know that we have," Rhodes says. "We're trying to show others what my crew chief and I know. We have an awesome relationship and we know how to set up the race cars, we know how to get speed, it's just a matter of getting the experience together now. It just validates that." The fact that Sprint Cup star Kyle Busch was among the competitive field in qualifying that day didn't hurt the team's confidence, Bellicourt says. "You look at that and say there's no reason we can't run with any of these guys," Bellicourt says. "Now Ben knows it. We knew it before, but you always want to make it happen and then you just get that extra confidence. I know it, the guys know it, Ben knows it, and hopefully now everybody else sees what we're capable of. "We're looking to continue to do more of that to show that it wasn't just a flash-in-the-pan, one-time thing. We're going to try to do it at Kansas again." On the mic Rhodes has visions of keeping his racing aspirations going, climbing the ladder, chasing victories. But if his NASCAR dream somehow ended tomorrow, he has an entertaining backup plan -- in television. The 19-year-old is in his fifth season as co-host of "On Track with Ben Rhodes ," a 30-minute weekly show that chronicles his racing career and allows him to meet and interview personalities in the Louisville area. Kent Spencer -- the sports director at WHAS-11, an ABC affiliate in Louisville -- has served as the show's other co-host since its inception. "I'd met Ben before, but in kind of a different realm," Spencer says. "He was a young man trying to come up, went to a local high school, trying to make it in NASCAR, so we interviewed a few times there. This was obviously a different beast. He and I have a really good rapport together, we like to be around each other, so we kind of knew early on that this was going to work." The experience has allowed Rhodes to interact with community leaders from all walks of life. This season, Rhodes and Spencer have taken their show on the road, spending time with charitable organizations, returning to Holy Cross High School (the driver's alma mater), and paying visits to Churchill Downs, site of Saturday's 142nd Kentucky Derby. Rhodes' comfort on camera has grown not only in his hometown, but also during media sessions in the garage on race weekends. "I get to see and build new relationships with people, but it's also trained me to talk to the media and how to talk on camera," he says. "Before the show, I was really, really bad. Now that I've done the show for a couple seasons, I've done a lot better and it makes the job at the race track a lot easier for me." Even Bellicourt has noticed. "You give that kid a microphone and you're going to have to rip it out of his hand before he quits talking," he says with a laugh. "He's very outgoing and does a good job with that. He's kind of a total-package guy. He's got the marketing side, he's really good in front of the camera and obviously has performed on the race track great, so he's got an enormous amount of talent." It all circles back to the versatility and composure that extends beyond Rhodes' years. "I got that feeling from him back when he was 17," Spencer says. "You could definitely tell he's not a normal high school junior, not a normal high school senior. It's just the way he goes about things and the way he can communicate, and I think a large part of that is because the way that his mom and dad make him do a lot on his own. "If you want this dream, it's not easy. You're going to have to work for it. Every week, we get done taping the show and Ben helps tear down the set. He does a lot setting up his own schedule. He's out there and he's doing it, getting the job done, but there's a lot of times where it just blows me away." Several drivers with successful NASCAR credentials have made smooth transitions to the broadcasting booth for second careers after their driving days are done. Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon added his name to the list this season, joining FOX Sports for its coverage of the sport. Rhodes says he'd love to see a similar trajectory for his career, but right now he's one-upping it -- by taking on both jobs at once. "Hopefully my racing career goes on for a long time and I can build up a great reputation and go out on TV broadcasting," he says. "I think it's really cool that drivers do that once they're done, and they're able to go up in the broadcast booth and shine new light on the subject and able to give fans kind of the inside scoop on things. As things change and progress, maybe some of the other broadcasters might not be aware of it. "New drivers like Jeff Gordon and the guys that are fresh out of the race car can show them and talk about what's changing in the sport. I think that's really cool that drivers can do that." Spoken like a kid who is wise beyond his years.
Dillon brothers differ on dirt racing
Brothers disagree on how much dirt-track racing NASCAR should have ROSSBURG, Ohio -- They're brothers, Austin and Ty Dillon , so of course they sometimes disagree. There were certainly a few differing opinions during an Abbott and Costello-esque joint media availability with the two drivers at Eldora Speedway in advance of Wednesday night's 1-800-Car-Cash Mud Summer Classic. The mid-week race is the lone yearly foray onto dirt for one of NASCAR's three national series, and Wednesday's NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at the half-mile, high-banked dirt oval owned by Tony Stewart is the third consecutive year the trucks stop in western Ohio. While some of the discussion between the brothers was humorous -- both considered themselves the favorite to win, with Austin asking Ty to go on the record and putting his recorded answer on Instagram -- there was a very real difference of opinion on a talking point throughout the NASCAR community. Should there be more races on dirt, and should the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and/or the NASCAR XFINITY Series be involved? "My opinion is, I think this event has gained so much exposure and has done such a good job for the Truck Series," Ty Dillon said. "I know everyone wants to see more dirt races throughout the series, but I think we need to keep it unique to the Truck Series. What it is now is an event everybody looks forward to, and I think if you start adding too many of them, you're going to kind of cloud the specialness of the event. "And I think this is a prestigious event -- at least it is to me and the folks in the dirt world. You start adding more to the schedule, it takes a little bit away from it for me personally." It took less than three seconds for Ty's older brother to offer his retort and draw in Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage -- in town for the event, and hanging out in the media center -- into his argument. "I disagree -- guess what, we're brothers," Austin Dillon said with a chuckle. "I don't know, I like these races and I think they're fun. We've got a guy in the back (Gossage) who could make it happen if we wanted a dirt race in Texas. "It brings something new to our sport, changes it up and brings new fans who are curious to see what it's like. And it's good racing. Look at the highlights of the last two years racing here and you could probably put that in any highlight reel that NASCAR's had in the last 10 years." MORE: Ty makes light of Keselowski's asphalt background Austin Dillon won the inaugural event in 2013, with Darrell Wallace Jr . taking top honors in 2014 after outlasting Kyle Larson ; Ty Dillon finished fifth last year. The 2013 victory for Austin Dillon , who drives the No. 3 Chevrolet full time in the Sprint Cup Series, came at NASCAR's first national series event at a dirt track since 1970, when Richard Petty won at North Carolina State Fairgrounds . Austin and Ty may disagree on NASCAR's dirt future, but there was one resounding theme in which there was harmony between the two -- and everyone in the garage area Wednesday agree. "This event is very special," Austin Dillon said. "I think it's awesome to see a dirt track develop like this. I'm really thankful for what Tony (Stewart) is doing here." FULL SERIES COVERAGE • Latest news • Standings • Schedule
Bruton Smith builds Hall of Fame career brick by brick
RELATED: Learn more about the NASCAR Hall of Fame There's a possibility, albeit remote, that O. Bruton Smith could be entering the NASCAR Hall of Fame as a race car driver instead of a race promoter extraordinaire. Smith, at age 17, bought a race car and decided to be a professional driver. "One time, I actually beat (NASCAR Hall of Famers) Buck Baker and Joe Weatherly," Smith said in a May 7, 2005, interview with Motorsport.com. "So I knew when I beat them I could be a contender, right?" Smith's mother, however, believed otherwise and appealed to a Higher Authority. She prayed her son would change his mind. "She started fighting dirty," Smith said in the same interview. "You can’t fight your mom and God, so I stopped driving." NASCAR stock car racing became the beneficiary of the intervention. Smith turned to race promotion, ultimately creating some of America's greatest facilities. His eight-track Speedway Motorsports Inc. (SMI), anchored by Charlotte Motor Speedway , helped boost the sport to new heights in the 1950s and was the first American motorsports company to go public in 1995. The Oakboro, North Carolina native is part of the NASCAR Hall of Fame's class of 2016 that includes Jerry Cook, Bobby Isaac, Terry Labonte and Curtis Turner. Induction ceremonies will be held Jan. 22 in Charlotte, N.C. and will be broadcast live at 8 p.m. by the NBCSN. Born on a farm in rural North Carolina, Smith never considered an agricultural life. He hated the thought of being poor, which a childhood during the throes of the Great Depression appeared to suggest. "You have food, clothing and shelter but you never have any money and I never did like that. I did not like that," Smith said in a July 2003 Car & Driver story authored by Bob Zeller. "You worked from sunup to sundown, but you never did see the rewards." By 1949, Smith had his own stock car racing association, the National Stock Car Racing Association, which was a direct competitor to William H.G. "Big Bill" France's fledgling NASCAR. Both groups fought for the same drivers and neither was making much money. France and Smith discussed a possible merger in 1950 but the Korean War and U.S. Army scuttled the negotiations. Smith was drafted, served two years stateside as a paratrooper and by the time he mustered out the NSCRA was defunct. Smith began to be noticed in 1954 when he took over promotion of the half-mile track at the Charlotte Fairgrounds . Motorsports writer Russ Catlin wrote of "the genius of a 27-year-old fanatic named Bruton Smith … who took a poorly lighted, run-down half-mile track that wends around a muddy lake and built it into a spectacular speed emporium." In partnership with Turner and others, Smith built Charlotte Motor Speedway , completed in 1960 at a cost of $1.5 million. The first Coca-Cola 600 – then the World 600 – was the facility's opening event. Eventually, Smith decided just owning the 1.5-mile track wasn't enough. Boosting its profile meant adding seats, building suites and condos for VIP customers – and changing demographics of ticket buyers and sponsors. "He took a cue from the oil industry in World War II when they were trying to get women who were suddenly driving the family car to stop in and pump gas at their service stations," said CMS' then-general manager Humpy Wheeler. "What they did was clean up the stations and make sure they had a decent women's rest room." By 2000, the track's customer base was 40 percent female. "I took the position that Charlotte Motor Speedway was constantly under construction," said Smith, a statement that describes how the now 88-year-old entrepreneur views his racing empire. Fueled in part by public stock offerings, Smith acquired Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1990 and Bristol Motor Speedway in 1996 – expanding the latter from 71,000 to 160,000 seats. SMI bought Sonoma Raceway in 1996, Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 1997, New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2007 and Kentucky Speedway in 2008. Smith built and opened Texas Motor Speedway – SMI's signature project – in 1997, which rose from the prairie outside Fort Worth. The track later added Big Hoss TV, the world's largest HD screen measuring 20l,633.64 square feet. SMI presents 13 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races annually, including three in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup . "He (is) such an innovator. He would think of something and do it," said NASCAR Hall of Fame voter Eddie Wood, co-owner of the Wood Brothers Racing team, in a May 20, 2015 interview with ESPN’s Bob Pockrass. NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France agrees. "He deserves to be in (the NASCAR Hall of Fame); he's made a huge impact (on the sport) obviously," France said. "He has given the fans an experience that has transformed the sport." Tickets are available for the NASCAR Hall of Fame Induction Dinner and Ceremony (limited quantities available). Individual ticket and ticket packages are available at ticketmaster.com, the NASCAR Hall of Fame Box Office or by calling 800.745.3000.