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

F1 Preview – 2018 French Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
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It’s hard to believe that the French Grand Prix, the oldest grand prix event on the planet, as it dates back to June of 1906, was ever removed from the Formula 1 calendar.

Alas, not since 2008 at Magny-Cours has Formula 1 held a race on French soil. Yet, that all changes this weekend, as Formula 1 visits the Circuit Paul Ricard for its first French race in a decade.

Formula 1 teams are not strangers to Paul Ricard. It has been a popular testing facility for years, as evidenced by the below photo from 2016, featuring Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari in a wet tire test.

LE CASTELLET, FRANCE – JANUARY 26: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Scuderia Ferrari drives during wet weather tire testing at Circuit Paul Ricard on January 26, 2016 in Le Castellet, France. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

However, in terms of racing, Paul Ricard has also been absent from the calendar for quite a long time – the last time Formula 1 race at Paul Ricard was in 1990. Alain Prost won for Ferrari that day.

1990: Alain Prost of France punches the air in celebration after passing the chequered flag in his Scuderia Ferrari to win the French Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard circuit in Le Beausset, France. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

As such, despite being a known quantity as a testing facility, how a race weekend will shake out is anybody’s guess.

And what’s more, it marks the beginning of three consecutive race weekends – The French Grand Prix, The Austrian Grand Prix, and The British Grand Prix – which F1 teams and drivers are calling “the triple header.”

Talking points ahead of the French Grand Prix are below.

A Journey Into the Unknown?

Like all new venues, or resurrected and refurbished ones in this case, the Circuit Paul Ricard represents somewhat of an unknown, as there’s no available race data to make predictions off of.

And the 3.61-mile, 15-turn track itself represents a range of challenges. It has fast corners, like Turns 1 and 2 (S de la Verrerie), a technical section between Turns 3 and 7 (Virage de l’Hotel through the Mistral Straight Start), and a 1.1-mile straightaway in the Mistral Straight, though it is separated by a chicane (Turns 8 and 9).

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff discussed the challenge of the circuit, highlighting the lack of data to build off of as well the tough three-race stretch ahead as especially challenging, in a preview on Formula 1’s website.

“France should be an interesting race. We don’t often get to race on a track where we have little to no historical data. It makes preparing for the weekend a bit trickier than usual, but that element of the unknown also adds to the challenge. The French Grand Prix marks the first race of the triple header, which will test all F1 teams to their limits, but also offers the chance to score a lot of points over the course of three weeks – which is precisely what we’re setting out to do,” said Wolff.

That element of the unknown makes Paul Ricard one of the biggest wildcards on the 2018 F1 calendar, and a championship shake up could be in the cards as a result.

Ferrari, Mercedes Continue Their Back and Forth

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 25: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 25, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Ferrari and Mercedes have traded jabs throughout the 2018 season, with neither able to pull away from the other so far through seven races.

Sebastian Vettel enters the French Grand Prix with a one-point lead over Lewis Hamilton, and holds a slight edge in victories – three to Hamilton’s two – and comes off a thorough domination of the Canadian Grand Prix.

Vettel led every lap at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on his way to victory, while Valtteri Bottas had to carry the Mercedes flag in finishing second. Hamilton languished in fifth, a surprising and disappointing result given his previous success there.

The aforementioned Toto Wolff described it as a “wake up call,” though Mercedes will roll out a power unit upgrade this weekend – Ferrari and Renault, which also powers Red Bull Racing, rolled out upgrades of their own in Canada.

With four long straightaways present at Paul Ricard, power will certainly be at a premium, so such upgrades will be vital in giving Mercedes a chance to make amends after Canada’s disappointment.

Trio of French Drivers Look to Impress on Home Soil

It comes hardly as a surprise that the three French drivers – Romain Grosjean, Pierre Gasly, and Esteban Ocon – are keen to make an impression at their home race.

And all three could certainly use a boost. Gasly has only one finish inside the points (seventh in the Monaco Grand Prix) since his stellar fourth place effort in the Bahrain Grand Prix. Ocon is coming off back-to-back points finishes (sixth in Monaco, ninth in Canada), but he has only one other finish inside the points this year (tenth, in Bahrain). And Grosjean, despite showing the speed to finish in the points, is yet to score any in 2018.

As such, all three are hoping for big things in their home race this weekend.

“I want to get a good weekend, have some luck, get my first points of the season, and get a lot of support from the fans,” said Grosjean. “I think we should be in a nice place at Paul Ricard. I’m always looking forward to jumping back in the car. I just love driving an F1 car.”

Ocon, who has raced and won at Paul Ricard in the past, expects his prior experience could be a big help.

“I did race at Paul Ricard early in my career – it was actually where I had my first victory in single seaters in 2013 so I have some fantastic memories of the place,” Ocon described. “I hope we can add some more success this weekend. Having been there in the junior categories makes getting used to a new track in a Formula One car much easier. I think I will find my rhythm quite quickly.”

Gasly’s excitement level obviously matches that of his French compatriots, with the added bonus that the return coincides with his rookie F1 effort.

“For me it will be absolutely incredible that my first full season of Formula 1 coincides with the return of a French Grand Prix to the calendar for the first time in 10 years,” said Gasly. “That has to be a reason for me to be very happy and I’m really excited to be racing in my home country. I can tell it will be a special feeling going out on track and actually, I have spoken to Jean Alesi and Alain Prost about it and they both told me that it will feel really special and something that you really have to experience as a Frenchman racing in France.”

Qualifying for The French Grand Prix begins at 9:55 a.m. ET on Saturday, with Sunday’s race at 9:30 a.m. ET.

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