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July 9, 2014

Ricky Craven

Ben Rhodes

THE MODERATOR:  Good afternoon, everybody.  Before we get started, a quick background on our first two guests.  17‑year‑old Ben Rhodes heads into Friday's NASCAR K&N Pro Series East Granite 100 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway with a chance to tie Ricky Craven's 23‑year‑old record for the most consecutive series wins.
A little background:  During the course of Ricky's win streak back in 1991, he did run a combination race with the Busch Series at New Hampshire.  Because it did not count against his Busch North season stats, we do not consider that as part of the streak, so his streak is five consecutive wins.
With us today is Ben Rhodes, driver of the No.41 Alpha Energy Chevrolet for Turner Scott Motorsports.  Ben, thank you for joining us today.  As you head to New Hampshire this weekend with about as much momentum as any driver in the last 20 years, how confident are you heading to the track where you had a top‑5 finish last season?
BEN RHODES:  I feel great going into the race this year.  Last year we had an okay race.  I ended up getting into the wall on the first or second lap with the track bar and came in, replaced it and still finished fourth.  So I feel good going into the race this year.
Not sure how much the track has changed.  I know going to Richmond earlier this year the track had changed quite a bit and we were out in the left field when we unloaded, but we went to another pretty good track, Iowa, and we had a really fast car there, and we had it all dialed in for the race.  If we can do the same here this weekend, I think we'll be all good.  I've got faith in my guys, and I think they always give me a great car every weekend.
THE MODERATOR:  We're also joined by ESPN NASCAR analyst and former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Ricky Craven.  We've seen a lot of great talent come through the NASCAR K&N Pro Series over the years:  Austin Dillon, Joey Logano, Kyle Larson.  Did you think your record would last as long as it did, and what are your thoughts as Ben heads to your old home track with a chance to tie it?
RICKY CRAVEN:  I'm very enthusiastic.  I haven't met Ben.  I will.  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.  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.
But I've spent some time trying to better know Ben as a race car driver, and I'm really impressed.  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.
BEN RHODES:  Thank you, Ricky.  That means a lot coming from such a legend of the sport and you have so much experience, and I hope to see you there at New Hampshire, as well.  You aren't going to be crossing your fingers behind your back, are you?
RICKY CRAVEN:  Well, no, I'm not.  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.  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.
THE MODERATOR:  Thank you, guys.  We'll go to the media for questions, and if you have any questions about Ricky's record or need a clarification on that, feel free to reach out and contact me.

Q.  Good morning, guys.  First of all, I've got one for both of you.  Ricky, could you talk a little bit about if you think that the competition level in the K&N Pro Series both East and West has gotten more difficult since you raced there.  And Ben, can you talk about the success you've had this year and if you think that's going to help propel you into perhaps a Nationwide Series ride or something like that in the future?
RICKY CRAVEN:  I think that the depth of competition is probably‑‑ it's relative.  On the surface I would think most people would think of it now as more competitive because there are so many more teams with the funding or the support and the equipment.  There's probably a greater balance; the cars are closer to one another than they might have been back then.  But I don't know if it felt that way back when I was racing.  It felt like we emptied the tank every week, that everybody jaunted themselves to not just compete but even to get to the racetrack.  So I think it's relative.
But I do think it's impressive, certainly more impressive what Ben is doing than what I did back then.  And 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.

Q.  Ricky, I have a couple questions.  Obviously you're also doing your charity thing tomorrow, the golf thing tomorrow, and I wonder if you'd tell me a little bit about that and being involved with that for several years now.  And for Ben, if you could give us a little more detail about last year's race and how you feel about the track and how the track treated you and how you treated the track.  I think you ran five K&N races, and I assume that was later in the group of them.  I'm just curious as to how that stood in your K&N competition last year.
BEN RHODES:  Well, I really like New Hampshire.  I really like how the track has different banking, how you can go down and use the old apron to get your car around, and you can kind of use it to your advantage, you just have to know how.  So I really like that fact of it.  It's got character.  That's what makes it fun.  These big tracks are fun because we race on so many short tracks, and I've done that my whole life.  When we get on these big tracks it's just a nice change of pace.
But last year's race, I ran 17 races part‑time last year, and last year's race was good.  It was good.  That last restart we made up a lot of position from like 8th, 9th and went up to 4th.  Somebody started missing some gears on the restart and I was able to pull low and get past him for that good finish.  I had a fast car, I just got us in trouble early on when I was on the outside, I ended up getting knocked up to the wall.  I think somebody took it three wide on the bottom, so I got pushed up into the wall, but I've got to learn to make my own luck and keep myself out of the position, and when you do that, that's when you run up front, also.  You just have to have control of your race weekend, and you have to own it, and that's what we've been trying to do this year and make the most out of every race.
RICKY CRAVEN:  I always viewed New Hampshire as an opportunity to come home, so regardless of whether I was driving or now playing golf or working for ESPN, regardless of what the responsibilities are, I always look forward to this trip.
The tournament honestly, in full disclosure, it's not something that I put a tremendous amount of effort into because I don't live there, but I've lent my name to it, and I talk with Dave Swenson several times as we get closer to try and help manage things and bring some attention to it.  What you're going to see is several personalities there with a bunch of friends and race fans, and I'll be highly disappointed if I don't see you there.

Q.  Ben, how do you feel like the success of this season could help you into the Nationwide or some other series next year?
BEN RHODES:  The success has been great.  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.
You know, the people make the race team.  The people are what make the equipment, and I have really good people behind me, from Kevin, my car chief, to Mark, my crew chief, Joe, Mark and Trucker.  They've been great this year.  I couldn't ask for a better group.  We all complement each other really well, and we all pick up the slack when the other one kind of falls off or it may not be their specialty.  We all complement each other extremely well, and it makes for a great combination and a great race team.

Q.  And you talked about your crew, obviously Mark McFarland is your crew chief, he has obviously racing and driving experience.  What have you been able to lean on and how has he helped?  Has there been any particular time during the streak where something he said kind of clicked once you got in the car that made things work and just kind of how he's helped you?
BEN RHODES:  He's taught me a lot.  He's taught me so much this year.  I've been going into the shop every day and working with these guys trying to get better feedback and learn how to be faster on the racetrack and just trying to be the guy.  But I've learned so much from him.  He shares his experience all the time, from Nationwide and late models and everything.  That certainly helped us get the win at Langley this year.  He's raced there a lot.  He actually showed me his line around the track, and then I went to some other people that I knew that raced up there, and they showed me the line.  So he is definitely a key factor in the races this year.
The tracks that I haven't been to and the ones that he has has definitely sped up the learning curve and made it a lot easier.  He's very knowledgeable, and I just need to tap into that more often, actually, and talk to him more often about just everything.  He's just very smart.  A lot older than me, a lot more years than me, but if I can learn from him, that will be really big.

Q.  Ricky, when a driver goes through a streak like this, my guess is there isn't that appreciation until much later because you're in the moment.  You're trying to advance to the next thing.  You're trying to do the next thing.  When you look back at that period where you were having that success, what was the focus?  What was the goal?  What was the big concern at that point in your career where it wasn't as much about, hey, I've won three, four, five races in a row, it was like, I've got to do this to advance to that?  Just kind of put me back in that time period for you when you were having that success, please.
RICKY CRAVEN:  Yeah, it's actually fun for me to reflect on it because you're exactly right; it's very difficult, not just then but even throughout your career to stop and appreciate it.
In the last half dozen years, I've been able to enjoy my career more than when I was actually in the game.  When I think back to that period, it was much like Ben in that I was trying to establish myself.  I was trying to capitalize on an opportunity, and I was never concerned with staying in one place very long.  So NASCAR had this system and this ladder and I was climbing the ladder, and it was imperative that I win that championship.  I was Rookie of the Year the year before, and my focus was on winning the championship, and of course the easiest way to do that would be win races.
Now, some of what I've heard from Ben today are the ingredients that were required to win five in a row.  For instance, he's very aware and has a good understanding of the racetrack and each racetrack requiring something different, and as a driver how quickly do you discover that and capitalize on it.  It in large part that determines what kind of weekend you have.
I remember doing this stretch where I would‑‑ I might be in trouble, at Thompson, for instance, and I changed my line.  I found a place on the racetrack where my car was more effective and I was able to win just because of‑‑ not because the car was fast, not because of that race car, but because I found the place to take advantage of the competition.
That's what's kind of fun about this conversation today is listening to Ben and reading between the lines, and he has, I think, a keen awareness of all the little things, the intangibles, that make up a successful driver.

Q.  Ben, I wanted to ask you about your future plans or your plans for next year.  If you can make the financing work, what would be your druthers?  Would you prefer to run in trucks?  Would you prefer Nationwide?  What would you like to do?  The second question is when do you have to go back to school?
BEN RHODES:  Well, I would prefer to go to Nationwide.  If funding wasn't an issue, I would like to go to Nationwide.  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.  I think the following is a little bit more.
That's where I would like to be, but my school starts August 11th this year.  I have to be there for orientation August 8th, but I'm going to be in Watkins Glen racing, so I'll miss that.

Q.  I have a question for both of you guys.  Ben, obviously you know what Ricky has accomplished in this sport.  Does it give you confidence being in the same conversation as him for your future in this sport?
BEN RHODES:  It does.  It gives me a lot of confidence, 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 he 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 any entranceway, 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.

Q.  And Ricky, obviously Ben is part of the NASCAR Next program this year, and he's looking to use the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East for a launching pad for his career in the sport.  From your perspective what did this series do for you and the future success that you had in the sport?
RICKY CRAVEN:  It was the perfect venue at the perfect time.  You can have all the tools and the enthusiasm, but there's a percentage of this that is timing.  I remember New Hampshire Speedway being built and the series benefiting from the speedway being built, and also identifying that a win at (inaudible) paid the same points, but a win at New Hampshire in front of all the Cup owners would actually be more valuable as it relates to your future, the idea that the NASCAR audience is watching on that weekend.  I think it's a great series, and I'm really proud of the heritage, the history of the series.

Q.  Ricky, I just was wondering, watching and knowing what Ben Rhodes has accomplished this year, is there a current driver that reminds you of what he's accomplished this year?  Is he the next protege to Kyle Larson?
RICKY CRAVEN:  I think it's a fair comparison because first off, 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.

Q.  Ben, can you talk about the biggest benefit of being a part of the NASCAR Next program?
BEN RHODES:  The NASCAR Next program has been has been an honor to be a part of for the second year in a row, and I can't thank NASCAR enough for giving me the opportunity.  They've helped me a lot.  They've allowed me to meet people in the industry, media, they have that media day karting deal.  Unfortunately I don't think I'll be able to make it this year due to some prior engagements with Turner Scott Motorsports, but I met a lot of media members last year and have been able to build relationships with them as well as track owners and promoters and people that work for NASCAR.  So I'm meeting a lot of great people in the sport and building relationships at an early age as well as meeting the fans.  I've been able to do quite a few things in the Fan Zone and with the fans this year due to NASCAR Next, and I can't thank NASCAR enough for that opportunity.  It's helped me a lot, and it's made me a lot better person and a better racer.

Q.  Ricky, what's your best advice?  Obviously you've got great experience, and great experience now looking at different angles of racing.  What's your best advice to a young driver like Ben as he faces that steep learning curve on the way up the NASCAR ladder?
RICKY CRAVEN:  Well, it seems like he has most of it figured out, but the one thing I'd share with him that I share with every young person I cross paths with, and my kids, of course, is to chart your course.  I think it's really, really important to know what that destination is and then where you are in that process and how you're going to get from point A to point B.  I would say to continue to focus on that and just chart your course.

Q.  And for Ben, what do you expect will be the most challenging for you when you take that next NASCAR step?
BEN RHODES:  Well, I think the biggest challenge will be just getting used to the cars.  You know, it's so much different than what I'm running now on the bigger tracks.  Aero is going to become more of a factor.  They run radial tires, and just getting used to the feeling overall is going to be my biggest challenge.
We don't run a whole lot of big tracks, so I can give really good feedback on the short tracks.  I can tell you which side it's getting pinned over on.  I can tell you if we're overworking the right front or I can say if it's rolling over too much and I can give feedback on which part of the car to work on, but on the big tracks I'm still working on that, still getting my feedback better, so that'll probably be my biggest challenge, getting comfortable with the car and giving better feedback.  It's very, very, very important to give the right feedback so you can have a good car.  Drivers that don't give good feedback won't have a very good car.  That's something I've always been working on.  It's a journey throughout my racing career is getting better at that, and it's certainly going to be a big step and a big learning curve going to these big tracks and new cars.

Q.  Ricky, certainly we were talking about Ben today, but obviously there's been a lot of young drivers that are starting to make their move in the sport, but when you look at the top level, when you look at Cup, yeah, there's some guys over 40:  Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, even Dale Jr. hits 40 this year, but I think it's probably realistic of those guys that they're probably going to be racing another two, three, four, five years, and the question is when you talk about the young talent, you talk about a guy like Ben, you talk about a guy like Chase Elliott, you talk about Dylan Kwasniewski, Ty Dillon, those guys, the question is how competitive is it going to get for these young drivers?  This is an area where they're getting opportunities at various levels, but is that going to become more and more difficult because there's not going to be that movement at the Cup level and that's going to jam everybody up during the next few years?
RICKY CRAVEN:  Yeah, that's a great question.  I think so much of it depends on a lot of circumstances.  Some circumstances you can't control like economy.  There's always a willingness to take chances when the economy is healthy and their cars have decals on all corners, and less of a willingness when the economy is not healthy and they don't sell as much.
So I think the economy is getting better.  That's good news for young drivers.  If I were in Ben Rhodes' situation today, I would be a tremendous fan of Kyle Larson and I'd be campaigning for him every week personally, not vocally but just‑‑ the more success that Kyle Larson has, and if a Chase Elliott does come to the series sooner rather than later and Austin Dillon, the more success those drivers have in the short‑term will create that trend where owners go shift back to young talent and getting that next prize racehorse.
It appears as though we're headed that direction, but not to the degree we were several years ago.  But it appears as though we're heading back to that direction.
THE MODERATOR:  Ben and Ricky, we appreciate your participation this afternoon, and Ben, good luck this weekend at New Hampshire.  We'll bring in Ryan Preece at this time.
BEN RHODES:  Thank you so much, and look forward to meeting you, Ricky.
RICKY CRAVEN:  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.
BEN RHODES:  Thank you so much.

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