Benson bounces back
by Pete McCole

February 22, 2003

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Johnny Benson

Three short years ago, Johnny Benson sat at a crossroads of sorts. Behind lay years of both championship triumphs and missed opportunities. Ahead of him, Benson faced an uncertain path as the driver of the Tyler Jet Motorsports Pontiac, a struggling, un-sponsored race team.

Benson stayed the course, and despite a few more setbacks along the way, his career appears to be back on the upswing as he returns to North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, N.C. where he scored his first Winston Cup victory after 226 career starts last November.

Benson will start second in the #10 Valvoline Pontiac Grand Prix behind pole-sitter Dave Blaney in Sunday’s Subway 400.

“Rockingham has always been a track where we've ran pretty decent at,” said Benson during a teleconference with the media on Tuesday. “We've always ran good there. I was finally glad we were able to win. We've been close in the Busch Series and had had a bunch of top fives in Winston Cup too.”

Benson is proof you can be a nice guy and win races.

He showed tremendous patience after being bumped out of the lead by younger, more aggressive drivers, not once, but twice, just weeks before his victory at North Carolina Speedway, last year.

Benson led in the waning laps in the New Hampshire 300 at New Hampshire Int’l Speedway in September before Ryan Newman nudged his way to the front to win the race. A month later at the Old Dominion 500 at Martinsville, Kurt Busch pushed his way past Benson to take the checkered flag

In both cases, Benson had opportunities to retaliate and re-take the lead, but he didn’t.

"That's just the way I am.” Benson said, “If I had been a bad guy and won 20 races, I'd be happy with that. But, I'm not that guy. I just am what I am and that's just the way it is”

“Maybe I could have won one if I had wrecked the guy. But, I wasn't going to do that.”

Benson spent much of 2002 on the sidelines, missing five races with an injured shoulder suffered in the Hardee’s 250 Busch Series race at Richmond in May and missing another two races after another crash in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona in July.

Despite his injuries, Benson came back stronger than ever, picking up several top five finishes before scoring his first Winston Cup victory at the Pop Secret 400 at North Carolina Speedway last November.

Now, Benson is back to 100% and looking forward to the season.

“I was 100 percent before the year was out.” Benson said, “It was, as far as in the race car, two or three weeks after getting back into the car where I felt I was in pretty good shape. It just took a couple of weeks is all.”

In whatever series he has raced in, Benson has always found success.

Benson, after honing his skills on the short tracks of his home state of Michigan, moved through the American Speed Association (ASA) and NASCAR’s Busch Series, where he won both rookie and championship titles. In 1996, Benson moved up to the Winston Cup ranks with Bahari Racing, finishing 21st in points en route to the rookie title.

In 1998, Benson signed on with Roush Racing, but what should have been the pinnacle of Benson’s career turned into two years of frustration and disappointment.

In two seasons with Roush, Benson’s team posted just three top five victories and ten DNF’s. In 1999, he finished 28th in the points standings, lowest among the five Roush Racing drivers. In July of that year, Benson was released from his contract with Roush Racing to seek other opportunities elsewhere.

"Jack gave me an opportunity to go race their race cars and it's a great organization. I'm glad that that happened.” Benson said, “Unfortunately, it wasn't the right thing for me and him. We struggled, we had some problems and at that point in time, I think he knew what was best. I knew what was best.

“At that point in time, I felt like they were doing everything they could for all their race teams, but I didn't think it was going to work for us. That's when I chose to go do something different.”

Benson signed on with Tyler Jet Motorsports, a struggling organization that was once owned by Darrell Waltrip. Arriving at Daytona for SpeedWeeks in 2000 without a sponsor, Benson surprised everyone by nearly winning the “Great American Race”, losing the lead with just four laps to go and eventually finishing 12th.

Benson and his team soldiered on through 2000 scraping together just enough sponsorship opportunities to keep them going through June. The team was sold to MB2 Motorsports in July. By season’s end, they had secured sponsorship from Valvoline, who bought a controlling interest in the team. The team picked up three 3rd-place finishes in 2001, ending the season 11th in points at seasons end.

Despite his victory, Benson hoped for better in 2002. Now fully recovered from his injuries, he and his team can focus on their goal – winning the Winston Cup Championship, and not necessarily winning races.

“I would rather go through the season and maybe only win one (race) and win the Winston Cup Championship as opposed to winning four races and finishing out of the top 10.” Benson said, “ It depends how you want to view it. Yeah, the goal is to get in the top 10 and eventually work your way to a Championship.”

"We're looking forward to the 2003 season and just moving on. We've got a new Grand Prix and we're trying to get back into the swing that we ran in 2001 and how we ended up in 2002.”

If it’s true nice guys don’t always finish last, this could be the year for Johnny Benson for claim his third major driving championship.

The author can be contacted nascar@autoracing1.com

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