Toyota sweeps truck/manufacturer's championship with Ben Rhodes and race win with Chandler Smith

Toyota sweeps truck/manufacturer's championship with Ben Rhodes and race win with Chandler Smith
Courtesy of Toyota Racing

AVONDALE, Ariz.—Ben Rhodes didn’t enter the season finale of the Camping World Truck Series as the title favorite, but he left the champion.

Rhodes bided his time running in the top five for most of the final stage. But when go-time came, he gave Zane Smith a bump-and-run moved up to fourth-place with nine laps remaining.

Six laps later, Rhodes passed defending champion Sheldon Creed for third and held his position for three circuits as Chandler Smith crossed the finish line for the win.

“That was the hardest last 40 laps I think I have ever driven in my life,” Rhodes said. “I was doing things to the race car I probably shouldn’t have been doing, it was dumb, but I had everything to lose. And we brought it home and won it. I don’t even know what to say. This is crazy. Bookends for the season, I am so proud of my ThorSport Racing group.

“This wasn’t like a vision we had, right, everyone wants to win it, but you just don’t know, it’s so hard. I just can’t thank Duke and Rhonda (Thorson) enough. They are the reason I’m here tonight, Bombardier, Toyota, Menards, WileyX, we have so many people that help us, I can’t even talk right now I’m so excited.“

For Chandler Smith, the victory marked the second win of the season in the No. 18 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota. The win secured rookie honors for the 19-year-old from Talking Rock, Ga.

“First and foremost, All Glory to the Man Upstairs, without him, none of this would be possible," Smith said. "I wouldn’t have all these awesome relationships with all these guys, my racing family. This is my family. Also, he’s blessed me with a great family and being around great people and being able to come out to Phoenix Raceway in front of these fans tonight and be able to compete in high tier equipment. I’m just really blessed right now. Can’t thank Safelite, Toyota Racing, Danny (Stockman, crew chief), KBM, Kyle (Busch, team owner), everybody that goes down the line to make this happen.”

Stewart Friesen, Rhodes, Creed, Zane Smith, Christian Eckes, John Hunter Nemechek, Todd Gilliland, Carson Hocevar and Austin Hill rounded out the top 10.

While KBM celebrated their 10th win of the season, Nemechek reflected on his misfortune. The favorite fell early in the truck contest. Before completing the first lap, Nemechek tagged the wall. Moments later Kris Wright bounced into Nemechek. He continued for six laps before a right-front tire deflated and the driver of the No. 4 dropped to 34th, two laps down.

Taylor Gray hit the front stretch wall coinciding with the second caution and the end of Stage 1 with Chandler Smith taking the green-white-checkered flag. Smith and Creed exchanged the point four times with the No. 18 Toyota taking the second stage as well on Lap  90.

Creed gained the leal on the Lap 100 restart with Friesen and Chandler Smith in tow. But two laps later, the caution flew for the fourth and final time after Tate Fogelman’s truck stalled on the track. The caution provided Nemechek with the opportunity for the lucky dog. He returned to the lead lap for the first time since Lap 7 in 24th-place.

Rhodes moved up to third for the Lap 106 restart. Four laps later, Zane Smith climbed from sixth to third. Crew chief Bono Manion warned him not to burn off his tires in case there was a long-green run—and there was. Although Zane ran as high as second, he dropped to third with 30 to go and was passed by Chandler putting Rhodes directly behind him.

Meanwhile, Nemechek passed Matt Crafton with 27 laps remaining for 11th, but without a caution, he could never make up the ground to compete with Rhodes and Zane Smith.

“Yeah, I got run into the first corner, got into the fence," Nemechek said. "Somebody else ran into us on the left side and this thing is killed pretty much, but had a left front tire go flat, went down two laps, got both of our laps back, but just needed more laps I guess. After all, felt we had the best truck tonight Playoff-wise for sure. Drove from pretty much last to seventh there and running down Ben and Zane for the championship, just not enough. That’s what’s frustrating.

"A huge shout out to all of our partners. I’m disappointed, frustrated. Thank you Pye-Barker Fire Alarm Services, Toyota, Kyle (Busch), everyone. Thankful for the opportunity. We came here to win races this year, we succeeded, came up short of the championship. I’ll be #BackForMore next year.”

For Crafton, the 12th-place finish was more than bittersweet. The race marked the end of an era between Crafton and crew chief Junior Joiner. Over the past 10 years, the pair won three titles and 13 truck races.

“We really fought free off all night," Crafton said. Really free off, center off. Never really could get ahold of it for whatever reason. I’m excited for Ben, Duke and Rhonda (Thorson), everybody over there. This Menards Toyota Tundra – we qualified well, I mean, decent. I was really worried about that because every time we qualify decent here, we don’t race good. All-in-all, regroup, head to Daytona – go to 2022.”

Chandler Smith grabbed the lead from Creed on Lap 133 and held the point to the finish. Eight laps later, Rhodes tagged Zane Smith between Turns 1 and 2 for fourth-place—and to become the top Championship 4 contender. Five laps later, Rhodes moved by Creed for third and to claim his first truck title and the first owner’s championship and fourth truck championship overall for ThorSport Racing.

For Toyota, the title marked the manufacturer's 12th truck championship.

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