NASHVILLE, TENN. – For each NASCAR driver, their journey is paved with many blessings and honors along the way to earning top honors in the sport. For many, this way of life becomes a lifetime, while for others it is not as long.
In the late-2000s and early-2010s, a ruthless driver market, defined by a lack of movement and a sluggish economy that didn’t always present good opportunities, swallowed up many up-and-coming drivers, including some champions such as 2012 NCWTS champion James Buescher.
For three drivers – Kyle Larson, Daniel Hemric and Ben Rhodes – they each survived and took advantage of many blessings in their journey to attain the crowning honor of becoming a top three NASCAR national series champion.
For Ben Rhodes, the journey began with a 2014 championship in the series now known as ARCA East, which quickly ascended him to 10 NASCAR Xfinity Series starts in 2015 with JR Motorsports.
In 2016, at just age 19, he fatefully moved to Thorsport Racing for his first NCWTS season. In his first year, he missed the playoffs which set a tone for the first part of his Thorsport stint.
Although Rhodes won three races in his first five seasons, he also had several run-ins – a last-lap incident racing for the lead with Johnny Sauter at Kansas in 2016, incidents with Brennan Poole and Tyler Dippel in 2019 and an Oct. 2020 race at Texas where he sparred on-track with several drivers including future teammate Christian Eckes.
Rhodes entered 2021 with somewhat of a reputation as a loose cannon that he quickly blasted away when he won back-to-back races to start the season. The wins locked him into the playoffs and into a chance for the NCWTS he successfully seized on.
In his championship press conference, Rhodes attributed his success to Matt Crafton and Duke and Rhonda Thorson. Crafton helped Rhodes understand how to not beat himself and Rhodes thanked Duke and Rhonda Thorson for letting him race for Thorsport – even stating he didn’t know if he’d be racing in the sport if it wasn’t for them.
Whether Rhodes will eventually move to the NASCAR Cup Series one day or form his legacy in the NCWTS – as Crafton and NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Ron Hornaday Jr. have – but with Rhodes receiving high remarks from people such as Jeff Gordon, who complemented his awards ceremony speech, he will have plenty of momentum in his 2022 title defense.
Heading into 2022, Daniel Hemric will be in the remarkable position of defending his title after appearing to be relegated from the sport heading into 2021 – until a day of golf changed everything.
Hemric was at a golf course with a Poppy Bank executive, who was on the phone with Joe Gibbs working out a deal for Hemric, as he hit golf balls to quell the anxiety of his life effectively being on the line. Finally, the phone call ended with a hole-in-one as Hemric had a ride, but with a condition that he wouldn’t get paid unless he performed well enough.
Hemric outsold himself and consistently reached his performance benchmark, as he earned 15 top-five finishes en route to a season that put food on the table for his family and his career. The Phoenix win was the ultimate blessing for his as he finally broke through after countless second-place finishes.
Poppy Bank has done a lot for Hemric but he has also been blessed by car owners Brad Keselowski, Richard Childress and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Joe Gibbs – and Tim Ladyga, who sold his car to make sure Hemric’s career could keep going beyond age 14.
In 2022, an NXS title and a Kaulig Racing ride will keep his career as Hemric turns 31 with his destiny and livelihood more in his hands than it has ever been, proving a ruthless market can still reward success and hard work.
Success and hard work have solidified Kyle Larson’s journey into NASCAR was filled with plenty of blessings that came his way. Away from NASCAR and off the track, his drive and tenacity to prove himself and pay his dues have further defined his journey to becoming a NASCAR champion.
Larson met with ‘every team owner’ in 2011, including Hendrick Motorsports and Jeff Gordon who notably did not see eye-to-eye with Larson on dirt racing at the time. Eventually, as Larson described, Chip Ganassi was the only one who entertained the idea of signing him and Larson was signed shortly afterwards.
Larson’s loyalty to Ganassi was symbiotic – Ganassi gave Larson a chance to prove himself as a young NASCAR Cup Series driver and Ganassi improved from being a team of fringe playoff contenders to being a team of playoff regulars.
Then everything changed and Larson paid his dues elsewhere – to dirt racing and to the community impacted by his mistake – as NASCAR seemed out of reach.
“18 months ago I didn’t think that I was ever going to be in a Cup car again,” Larson said in his Nov. 7 NASCAR Cup Series championship press conference. “Strapping in for the Daytona 500 didn’t even seem real, let alone winning the championship.
Like in 2011, Larson’s drive and tenacity helped the unattainable become attainable again. Winning 46 races and volunteering his time to social justice causes made Larson the subject of high esteem in 2020, a year where he fulfilled what was near to his heart after nearly flatlining.
In 2021, Larson fulfilled his heart’s desire with a historic season that garnered the praise from the likes of people such as Tony Stewart, who called him the ‘greatest I’ve ever seen’, after Larson achieved the highest honor in NASCAR – the Cup Series championship.
The sights of the journey are as important as what the destination looks like. When the destination is reached, the weight of the journey is eased, allowing a chance to think back to who and what made the destination possible to get to.
As each of us maneuver every day in the journey toward our respective destinations, we each carry a certain amount of weight with us. The weight can be much to bear but relishing in the thrill and excitement these three champions experience, at a destination of their journey, reminds us that it is possible for us to get there no matter how hard it may seem.