May 15, 2015

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) Ben Rhodes doesn't have time for his graduation ceremony. He is already poised to move on to the next phase of his racing career.

The 18-year-old Rhodes skipped Friday's commencement at Louisville's Holy Cross High to make his NASCAR Xfinity Series debut on Sunday at Iowa Speedway. Rhodes will pilot the No. 88 JR Motorsports car typically driven by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick in the first stand-alone race of the season for NASCAR's second-tier series.

Rhodes will run 10 Xfinity races this summer. But none of them will likely be as memorable as Sunday's debut.

''Graduation is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. But this opportunity that I have is also a once in lifetime - and this will take me further than my graduation,'' he said. ''I've already got my diploma.''

It's a testament to Rhodes' promise that he's been given a rotational seat in the 88.

But even though he's basically still a kid, Rhodes has been working toward this weekend for over a decade.

Rhodes got his start in karts when he was just 7, following his older brother to the track. By 2012, he had run a full season in late model stock cars, and two years ago he moved up to NASCAR's K&N Pro Series. In seven K&N starts in 2013, Rhodes notched a pair of top-five finishes. Last season, Rhodes won four consecutive K&N races and six poles on his way to the East series championship.

He also made his Trucks debut in 2014, finishing in the top 10 three times in four starts.

Still, Rhodes' progression hasn't been without setbacks. After a series of dustups that were out of his control during his initial K&N season, Rhodes adopted the motto ''Do my best, forget the rest.''

''I've learned that you just have to let it go,'' Rhodes said. ''When I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to perform, I would go out and ruin qualifying or I would ruin something. When I would forget about it and mainly have fun, I always did better.''

Rhodes' goal for his debut race is simply to keep the 88 car out of trouble while pushing for a top-10 finish.

Rhodes has run at Iowa four times with the K&N series, winning once. He has also raced enough on Iowa's short oval to know that managing the bumps in the first two turns will determine who's got speed and who doesn't.

Rhodes has followed the 88 team around to as many races as he could this season while balancing his schoolwork. That's been a constant challenge for Rhodes, who said he celebrated his K&N championship by doing pre-calculus homework on the ride home.

For now, school will end for Rhodes just before Sunday's race.

Rhodes doesn't have his diploma just yet, though. The president of his high school is flying out to Iowa to will personally hand it to Rhodes during driver introductions.

''It's a huge relief knowing that I can just focus on the track,'' said Rhodes, whose only blemish during his academic career was a B in English as a senior. ''I'd like to make this my career ... and I know if I put all my focus on it it'll make me that much better of a racer.''

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Follow Luke Meredith on Twitter: www.twitter.com/LukeMeredithAP

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