(Photo: Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

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


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

Formula E: Team Aguri confirms da Costa for second season

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Antonio Felix da Costa has been confirmed for a second season with Team Aguri for the 2015-2016 FIA Formula E Championship, which begins later this month in Beijing.

He won once this past year at Buenos Aires and finished eighth in the points despite missing both the season opener and season finale due to clashes with his DTM schedule.

Said the 24-year-old Portuguese driver, “I am really happy to continue with Team Aguri and Formula E for season two. This championship is earning its respect in the world of motorsport and I am honoured to be involved. Regarding the season, I am really looking forward to getting started.”

Team Aguri team principal Mark Preston added, “It is a great pleasure to have Antonio continuing with the team for season two of Formula E. Antonio brought us our maiden win in Buenos Aires and helped to develop the team from scratch, he will continue to build on that success for season two and beyond.”

The team that bares the name of ex-Formula 1 driver and team owner Aguri Suzuki has not yet confirmed its second driver, which is the last outstanding seat to be filled on the Formula E grid.

Amlin, which had partnered with Aguri last year, is now present with the Andretti Formula E team and its drivers, Robin Frijns and Simona de Silvestro.

Hulkenberg leads shorter than normal FP1 in Russia

Nico Hulkenberg
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Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg posted a 1:44.355 lap of the of the Sochi Autodrom to lead a fairly abnormal, and shorter than usual, first free practice for the Russian Grand Prix.

Hulkenberg posted the time to conclude the usual 90-minute session, to pip Nico Rosberg at 1:44.407 on his final lap. The usual 90-minute session was shortened due to a track delay for cleanup of diesel fuel on course.

Sebastian Vettel, Sergio Perez and Daniel Ricciardo completed the top five.

While the clock started on time for the full 90-minute session, track activity was halted for the opening 30 minutes to clean up diesel spillage on the track at Turn 8.

It left teams and drivers with just a 60-minute first free practice to tackle the Sochi Autodrom, but did not push the session later or affect the timetable for the rest of the day. However, with a damp if not entirely wet track, it made things difficult in FP1.

The delay also meant that teams weren’t able to use an extra set of Pirellis handed out at the start of FP1. Supersofts can be used for the first time in FP2.

During the delay, it did offer a chance for sarcasm, and Manor seized the opportunity following a comment from McLaren Honda’s Fernando Alonso noting that even with Mercedes engines next year, Manor wouldn’t move ahead of them.

NBC’s Will Buxton explained the track surface dilemma drivers would face in this session.

With just under one hour to go in the session, Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson was the first to head out on course, leading several others. Ericsson made the first laps of the weekend at the track where he made his final start for Caterham a year ago.

Both Williams drivers went on course on Pirelli’s wet weather tires for their installation laps. Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg tried the intermediates, and Alonso was first on course in slicks.

No official times were registered until there were less than 40 minutes remaining in the session, with Alonso registering a 2:00.736 time, while putting down a bevy of sparks. He quickly lowered the mark to 1:56.327, and 1:53.854 after that. Ericsson was next in at a 1:58.926, although dropped into the 1:54 range not long after.

Alonso’s teammate Jenson Button clocked in at 1:50.920 with just under 20 minutes remaining and for the first time this year, we could say we had a McLaren Honda 1-2 on track, albeit under abnormal circumstances.

The trsck got busy in the final 15 minutes, with Toro Rosso’s Max Verstappen posting a 1:50.870 to lead before Alonso clocked in a 1:49.240.

A 1:47.959 from Williams’ Valtteri Bottas, then a 1:45.987 from Hulkenberg followed in the final 10 minutes as times firmly began to drop. Vettel got down to a 1:45.491 shortly thereafter, and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton came up two tenths shy of the mark at a 1:45.691.

Ericsson reported a power cut near the end of the session down at Sauber but otherwise there were no issues through the field, other than a handful of spins, including one from Hamilton on his final flier at the second-to-last corner.

FP2 begins from 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra.