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Ben Rhodes, 17-year-old phenom, could tie Ricky Craven’s five-race K&N win streak record Friday at Loudon

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One of the records ESPN analyst and former NASCAR driver Ricky Craven takes pride in owning could wind up being tied Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

The Maine native will be on hand as 17-year-old racing phenom Ben Rhodes attempts to tie Craven’s nearly quarter-century old series record of five straight wins in the K&N East Series in the East Granite 100.

“I do think it’s impressive, certainly more impressive what Ben is doing than what I did back then,” Craven said during a Wednesday morning NASCAR teleconference. “I think it’s mostly because he’s 17 years old, and I think it deserves a lot of attention. It’s what separates him from the crowd.”

Craven won five in a row on the K&N Series during the 1991 season.

Ironically, Craven and Rhodes will meet for the first time before the race, but Craven is already wishing Rhodes well in Friday’s race.

“I’m very enthusiastic,” Craven said. “I’ll go out of my way to find him this weekend and shake hands and wish him luck, as I’m really pulling for him to not only tie the record but exceed it.

“(Holding the record for) 23 years is a long time. I never really thought at the time that winning four or five in a row was important, and I think even if this happens that Ben would probably reiterate that. As a competitor, it’s just about winning and it’s about winning a championship.”

While the two haven’t met yet, Craven has been keeping up on Rhodes’ career from a distance.

“I’ve spent some time trying to better know Ben as a race car driver, and I’m really impressed,” Craven said. “He has all the tools, the ingredients, obviously a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of talent. But the people that I’ve asked say that he races like a 17 year old but he has the sense of a 37 year old, and I think that’s a magical combination.”

Rhodes is a native of Louisville, Kentucky. In addition to going for five wins in a row, he’ll also be going for his sixth win overall in just 10 races thus far this season on the K&N Pro Series East schedule.

The five wins came at Greenville (S.C.), and the last four on the schedule at Iowa, Winston-Salem (N.C.), Pensacola (Fla.) and Hampton (Va.).

He also finished second at Richmond, third at Bristol (Tenn.) and fourth at New Smyrna (Fla.).

He’s failed to finish inside the top-five just once thus far (15th at Daytona) and also has two poles.

He’s the latest young hot shoe in a series that has seen quite a few current Sprint Car drivers essentially start their own racing careers, including Austin Dillon, Joey Logano and Kyle Larson.

“You know, it’s strange, I don’t wake up every day thinking I’m old, but watching you and seeing what you are accomplishing at such an early age, I have kids older than you, Ben, so I guess it puts everything in perspective,” Craven said. “But no, I sincerely — I want to see you tie this weekend, and I really think you’ve got a great shot, not only because of all the things that have happened recently and the momentum that goes with that, but New Hampshire is a good track in terms of if you have a fast car and you have a real good feel for the car that day, it’s big enough that you can maneuver around other drivers.  So I think it’s a good place to get that fifth in a row.”

Rhodes has obviously caught the attention of a number of individuals, not just fans and media, but team owners as well. He’s already had two starts this season in the Camping World Truck Series (eighth at Martinsville, crashed and finished 22nd at Dover).

There’s already talk about him possibly even going up to the Nationwide Series. But of course that requires sponsorship, a good team and the luck of being in the right place at the right time.

“If funding wasn’t an issue, I would like to go to Nationwide,” Rhodes said. “I think it would be an easier jump from the K&N cars to Nationwide and an easier jump from Nationwide to Sprint Cup.

“But that’s looking pretty far ahead, and I think that would be much easier because of the aero package and everything that makes it up. I know those trucks with the huge side force that they have, it would make it hard learning those things and then trying to jump in the Nationwide car.

“It obviously works and it’s a very good learning curve and definitely a good stepping-stone, but if I could just get in that and learn from the get-go, I think that would be good. It would knock out some of the learning curve, I think, going from the trucks to the Nationwide, and I think sponsors and funding is a little bit better for Nationwide Series.”

Rhodes is part of the NASCAR Next driver development program – and it’s an understatement to say his development has been like the way he drives a race car: f-a-s-t.

“The success has been great,” Rhodes said. “We’ve already been trying to focus on some plans for next year and trying to get stuff together. But as you know and everybody knows in racing, it’s a difficult sport. A lot of stuff can be done at last minute and get it all together, so we’re still figuring out our plans, but it’s definitely been helping. It’s definitely been opening up some doors and bringing some attention to us. I’ve felt like we’ve had this in us all the time, it’s just finally coming together.”

To be compared to someone like Craven “gives me a lot of confidence,” Rhodes said. “Just to be able to talk to people that have been around the sport for a long time, and they obviously know way more than I do, and just to try to tap into that knowledge and hear what they have to say is always great.

“You know, I’m hearing what (Craven) says, and it gives me a big boost of confidence. Going into these races, it’s funny how I can relate to what he’s saying from way back then to what I’m feeling now. He’s talking about not throwing down and focusing on that championship, and that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m not really looking at each race. Winning each race is great, but our focus is the next one. I don’t even look back. You come in every day and you see the trophy is there anyway, but you look at them, admire them for a second, good job, pat on the back, and we’re right back to work ready to win the next one.

“I’m seeing a lot of similarities, and it’s cool to see that, and it definitely gives me a boost of confidence being in the same conversation as him and hearing what he has to say.”

Added Craven, “What Ben has accomplished already at such an early age, it doesn’t happen by mistake, so it speaks to his talent and it speaks to his focus. When you look at the young drivers in the series that have rolled out of it very quickly, Joey Logano and Kyle Larson, the latest example, and even if you take it a step further and look at the prospects of the sport, Chase Elliott, who graduates, has success, I think that benefits into that mold. Again, I’ve not watched him race. The numbers don’t lie.  They are very impressive. And listening to him, he just seems like he’s ahead of his years.”

As the teleconference ended, Craven had one last bit of encouragement to Rhodes: “I look forward to seeing you and look forward to pulling for you. You’ve given me a reason to watch the race. Have a great weekend.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

IMSA: PR1/Mathiasen, The Heart of Racing score PC, GTD Monterey wins

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Sunday’s second of two two-hour Continental Tire Monterey Grand Prix events was a calmer, cleaner affair at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca for the Prototype Challenge and GT Daytona classes, featuring both polesitting entries scoring the wins in the latest IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race.

The PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports team took its first win since winning last year’s Petit Le Mans, and first in a sprint race since incidentally, the last PC/GTD combined race at Lime Rock Park in July.

Robert Alon scored the pole in the team’s No. 52 Oreca FLM09 entry and ran consistently in second behind James French in the opening stint. Once Tom Kimber-Smith took over the car at pit stops, “TKS” controlled the race despite the advances of Renger van der Zande from Starworks Motorsport.

“Very early on Bobby (Oergel, team principal) said, ‘Start saving fuel,'” Kimber-Smith told IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam post-race. “It was hard to save with someone trying to chase down. If he was close enough he would have given me a go. We held on for the end. We needed this win; we needed it for the championship.”

Van der Zande shared the No. 8 Oreca FLM09 with Alex Popow and CORE autosport mirrored the No. 90 Visit Florida Racing Corvette DP in starting from pit lane after being late to the grid, serving a penalty but rebounding to a podium finish. Jon Bennett and Colin Braun were in the CORE entry and Braun put in a sterling drive to secure a podium.

GTD saw seven different manufacturers in the top seven positions – Porsche, Ferrari, Aston Martin, Audi, BMW, Dodge and Lamborghini – although the No. 23 The Heart of Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R was peerless up front with Alex Riberas and Mario Farnbacher dominating from pole to lead flag-to-flag in the 79-lap, two-hour race.

Porsche’s 911 GT3 R has a handful of World Challenge wins with EFFORT Racing, but this was its first in an endurance race (albeit only a two-hour race, but who’s counting).

Scuderia Corsa parlayed a front row starting position into its second second place finish of the day; the GTLM 488 GTE was second earlier, and the GT3 variant was second today in GTD with Alessandro Balzan and Christina Nielsen.

TRG-AMR, which missed Sebring, rebounded nicely with a new lineup of James Davison and Brandon Davis to end third in the No. 007 Aston Martin V12 Vantage GT3. Both team veterans secured the team’s first podium of the year.

PC and GTD resume in Detroit the first weekend in June.

Pericak praises Ford fuel mileage as new GT wins in Monterey

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The Ford EcoBoost V6 twin-turbo engine put in the back of the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GTs has been developed for years with Ganassi’s Ford-Riley DP program.

Sunday in the Continental Tire Monterey Grand Prix, the first of two two-hour races, the new Ford banked its first win courtesy of that engine making some incredible fuel mileage.

Richard Westbrook brought the No. 67 Ford GT home for his second straight win in Monterey, having also won overall here last year with Michael Valiante in a Corvette DP.

Westbrook took over the No. 67 car from Ryan Briscoe and proceeded to run 52 laps on a single fuel stint, for an hour and 17 minutes into the two-hour race.

“We’ve been waiting for this win for a long time,” Ford Performance director Dave Pericak said post-race.

“I think it’s great that it came as a fuel economy win. It’s great for Ford EcoBoost, because that’s what it’s all about, but this is really a boost for the team going into Le Mans. We’ve been working up to this point to showcase the car’s durability and I think this is what the team needed to go to Le Mans.”

“It hasn’t sunk in yet. The bad thing is we don’t have much time to celebrate. Le Mans is coming fast.”

“It’s a great win for our employees who have been watching us and turning us on and it’s a good way to keep up the momentum going into the big race.”

Here’s quick reactions from the @CGRSportsCar and @FordPerformance Twitter accounts in the immediate aftermath:

Mercedes feared power unit issue would end Rosberg’s Russian GP

SOCHI, RUSSIA - MAY 01:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP celebrates his win on the podium during the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on May 1, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff praised Nico Rosberg not only for his flawless display en route to winning Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix, but also for managing an issue on his power unit that could have ended his race.

Mercedes has struggled with the reliability of its power unit so far this season, with defending champion Lewis Hamilton suffering failures in qualifying for both of the last two races.

Rosberg suffered a dip in pace midway through the second stint of the race in Sochi that saw his lead over Hamilton dip from 12 seconds to just 7.5 seconds.

Hamilton ultimately had to back off due to a water pressure issue on his own power unit, but Wolff revealed after the race that Rosberg also had to manage a problem on his car.

“That race was anything but plain sailing today – it was a pretty stressful experience to get both cars home, and there was a point when we thought neither of them might make it to the flag,” Wolff said.

“First of all, congratulations to Nico, he did a perfect job all weekend and controlled the race from the front once again. He didn’t put a foot wrong.

“When we faced an issue on the MGU-K during the middle part of the race, he was able to do all the necessary steps to keep it under control and bring it home.

“As for Lewis, he drove brilliantly. Some really good, aggressive passing manoeuvres and clever racing brought him to P2 – and he was just getting his head down to charge when we saw a water leak and he was losing water pressure.

“The only thing to do was ask him to back off to bring the car home and fortunately that meant the situation stabilized but cost him the chance of racing Nico. No doubt he will be thinking about what could have been today – but it was a fantastic recovery after such a tough moment in qualifying yesterday.

“A one-two finish is always something special and to be savoured, especially with the performance advantage we enjoyed this weekend. We are pushing hard this year and finding the limits of our car – but we need to get on top of our issues so the drivers can battle it out on track themselves.

“That’s what we all want to see and what we will be working hard to achieve in the coming days before Barcelona.”

IMSA: Popular wins for Shank Ligier Honda, Ganassi Ford in Monterey

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Two first-time 2016 winners emerged in the first of two two-hour IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship races at the Continental Tire Monterey Grand Prix at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

Michael Shank Racing ended a four-year drought dating to 2012 in the GRAND-AM Rolex Series, when the team won the 50th Anniversary Rolex 24 at Daytona, to win overall and in Prototype with Ozz Negri and John Pew in the team’s No. 60 Ligier JS P2 Honda.

“It was a Honda day at Laguna Seca,” the eponymous team owner, Shank, told IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam in a not-so-subtle jab at their Japanese rivals, before confirming the team will miss the next round at Detroit owing to its 24 Hours of Le Mans preparation.

Meanwhile courtesy of a strategic gamble and an excellent amount of fuel saving, Richard Westbrook brought the No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT home to its first win since the car’s debut earlier this year at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Westbrook took over from Ryan Briscoe on the team’s first and only pit stop, then proceeded to run 52 laps on a stint to the finish, making it home on fumes.

Two quick passes by Negri following the second restart of the race on Lap 29 saw him emerge at the front of the field, having restarted in third.

“I feel at home when I’m working with them, working with John,” Negri told IMSA Radio. “I’ve been going at it and thinking about it since my first practice. It worked! We pushed hard on the out laps.”

Negri got around first Eric Curran for second in the No. 31 Action Express Racing Corvette DP, then race leader Sean Rayhall in the No. 0 DeltaWing DWC13 coupe shortly thereafter.

Negri’s closest challenger had been the polesitting No. 55 Mazda Prototype, started by Tristan Nunez and finished by Jonathan Bomarito.

But fuel issues on the first stop and then a spin by Bomarito when just behind Negri with just under 50 minutes remaining halted that car’s charge. The team opted not to take tires on the second stop and Bomarito fell back to fourth the remainder of the race.

Ryan Dalziel and Marc Goossens came from a pre-race penalty assessed for being late to the grid, starting from pit lane, to finish second after a great drive in their No. 90 Visit Florida Racing Corvette DP. Goossens held off Curran for second; Curran shared his car with Dane Cameron.

After the No. 55 Mazda and DeltaWing, contact between Joao Barbosa and Ricky Taylor took those two Corvette DPs out of contention and the No. 70 Mazda, then driven by Joel Miller, lost drive up the Corkscrew with a failed oil pump.

The GTLM race was a bit more straightforward; Westbrook got around teammate Joey Hand in the final 10 minutes to take the race lead.

Hand and Antonio Garcia, in the No. 3 Corvette C7.R, both pitted when trying to make the race on one stop. Westbrook made it home.

“They’ve had a helluva 3-4 months,” Westbrook told IMSA Radio. “When they tell you a number it’s like, ‘You’re killing me.’ But you adapt to it. Car was good. It was so tight at the end. So relieved to achieve something so quickly. The future looks bright.”

Scuderia Corsa, which grabbed the pole in class, scored a GTLM career best second place with Daniel Serra and Alessandro Pier Guidi in the No. 68 Ferrari 488 GTE.

Porsche fought through pace issues all weekend to survive any trouble with its No. 912 Porsche 911 RSR, driven by Earl Bamber and Fred Makowiecki, to finish third.

GTLM is off until after Detroit owing to the Le Mans break, with its next race early July at Watkins Glen.