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PENSACOLA, Fla. – Ben Rhodes is making it look easy, even when it isn't.
The 17-year-old NASCAR Next driver from Louisville, Kentucky, charged to the lead on Lap 134 restart and went on to win the Pensacola 150 in NASCAR K&N Pro Series East action on Friday night at Five Flags Speedway.
The win was the third straight and fourth in five races for Rhodes, who is in his first full season of series competition. Rhodes, whose other finish during this stretch was a second, extended his championship points lead to 55 over second-place Gray Gaulding after eight of 16 races.
Rhodes is also looking to join Kyle Larson, Ryan Trues and Joey Logano as drivers since 2007 to win the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East Sunoco Rookie of the Year and the series championship in the same year.
"I never would have thought we'd have such a good season," said Rhodes, who credited the handful of races he competed in last year and the time spent in the shop with the team. "I've been building on top of all that. It makes my feedback better. Even though we only had 45 minutes of practice and this was my first time seeing the track, we did a good job tuning the car."
Brandon Jones took second from Cameron Hayley in the final laps and crossed the line .985 of a second behind Rhodes.
While his No. 41 Alpha Energy Solutions Chevrolet led nearly every lap in winning at North Carolina’s Bowman Gray Stadium last time out, Rhodes needed to work harder in his first visit to the Florida half-mile.
After leading at the halfway point Friday, Rhodes surrendered the top spot to Hayley and fell to fourth. A late caution, however, gave him another shot and he made the bold move to the front past Gaulding and Hayley to claim the victory.
“Trying to save tires is always tough,” said Rhodes of the strategy running on the abrasive Pensacola surface. “You don't know if you’re going to get any breaks at the end. … Once you start saving you just hope you can get a break to get back up there or you have enough tire to run back up there. And I was trying to do both.”
Rhodes got his break on Lap 124 when Brennan Newberry went around on the backstretch and several cars got caught in the aftermath. That erased Hayley’s advantage and gave Rhodes and Gaulding another shot. Rhodes slipped inside Gaulding to grab second on the restart and powered underneath Hayley a lap later to claim the lead.
"I didn't think I was going to put my Alpha Energy Solution Chevy on the bottom. I thought Gray might be able to put a power move on the outside or he was going to duck down on the backstretch and get underneath Cameron, but neither one of them happened and that just kind of re-wrote my whole plan. I had to go at it from there. That was interesting."
"It was one of the better runs we've had in a while," Hayley said. "We've been really struggling with luck and cars and everything. I've made some mistakes in the past couple races. It's nice to finally get a good run.
Hayley settled for third followed by Kenzie Ruston in fourth, who rallied from a lap down from a flat tire. Gaulding, who earlier in the day won his second career 21 Means 21 presented by Coors Brewing Company Pole Award, finished fifth after leading a race-high 80 laps. He immediately left for the airport to run Saturday’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Illinois’ Gateway Motorsports Park.
Hayley looked like he had the strongest car in the field in the second half of the race as he drove from fourth at the Lap 75 break to the lead on Lap 114, erasing Gaulding’s sizable advantage in the process. The Canadian driver looked like he was cruising to his first points victory until the caution came out.
"Obviously it's not what we wanted. We wanted to go out there and get the win," Hayley said. "At that point, we had so many cars that had burned their tires off. I knew I had burned mine off a little bit more than everybody else getting to that lead but I knew I had them. I had them and that caution really hurt us a lot."
Said Jones: "We kind of saved too much, honestly, in the beginning. And the end. I saw (Hayley) getting sideways off the corner. (Crew chief) Shane (Huffman) kept getting on me to drive straight off the corners and not spin the tires on exit. I think we were just getting more drive off and fortunately got him there at the end."
Hayley did move to third in points, 10 behind Gaulding and three ahead of Jones.
Jesse Little came home in sixth followed Rev Racing teammates Jay Beasley and Sergio Pena, Ronnie Bassett Jr. and Austin Hill.
The NASCAR K&N Pro Series East is right back on the track next week at Hampton, Virginia’s Langley Speedway for the Visit Hampton 175 on Saturday, June 21.
Ben Rhodes en route to his third straight NASCAR K&N Pro Series East victory. Getty Images for NASCAR