One of NASCAR’s top young prospects will be teaming up with XFINITY Series champions JR Motorsports in 2015.
Ben Rhodes, who won the 2014 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East title, has been signed to drive JRM’s No. 88 Chevrolet in 10 XFINITY events next season with backing from commercial/industrial mechanical services provider Alpha Energy Solutions.
With the announcement, Rhodes will be part of a stellar lineup for the No. 88 car that includes team co-owner Dale Earnhardt Jr., new Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick, and Kasey Kahne in select events. The No. 88 car will contest the entire 33-race XFINITY Series schedule in 2015.
As for Rhodes, his 10-race schedule for JRM will feature appearances in: Both events at Iowa (May 17 and Aug. 1), Chicagoland (June 20), New Hampshire (July 18), Watkins Glen (Aug. 8), Mid-Ohio (Aug. 15), Road America (Aug. 29), Kentucky (Sept. 26), Dover (Oct. 3), and the season finale at Homestead-Miami (Nov. 21).
Dave Elenz, a former engineer for both Dale Jr. and Jimmie Johnson at Hendrick Motorsports, will serve as the No. 88 team’s crew chief.
“I’m thrilled to be joining one of the top teams in NASCAR for the 2015 season,” Rhodes said in a team release. “It’s been my goal to compete in NASCAR’s top tiers, and this is a tremendous opportunity with JR Motorsports and Alpha Energy Solutions to race in the XFINITY Series.
“I couldn’t think of a better group of people to surround myself with to continue my growth in the sport. I am looking forward to working with crew chief Dave Elenz, driving the No. 88 Chevrolet with Dale Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne, as well as sharing the track with my teammates Chase Elliott and Regan Smith.”
Rhodes, a native of Louisville, Kentucky and a member of the NASCAR Next development class, captured this year’s K&N East crown as a rookie with five victories – four of which came in succession. He clinched in the penultimate race of the season with a fourth at Greenville-Pickens Speedway.
Additionally, Rhodes ran in four Camping World Truck Series events this year, and picked up one Top-5 and three Top-10s. His best Truck finish was a fifth in November at Phoenix.
“Ben is one of the rising talents in NASCAR,” JR Motorsports general manager Kelley Earnhardt Miller said in her own thoughts. “As a company, JRM takes pride in cultivating young drivers, and together with Alpha Energy Solutions, we’re thrilled to give Ben a platform to further develop his skills at the next level. I’m excited to see what this coming year will bring for him and the 88 team.”
More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.
Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.
“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.
“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”
This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.
“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.
“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”
This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.
“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”
At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.
“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”
Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.
“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”
Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.
“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.
“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”