I learned something about Johnny Benson this week. It seems the guy is quickly becoming a dinosaur, obsolete within a sport that is evolving in a direction he is neither able or willing to keep up with.
Thank goodness he’s still here.
Apparently, the veteran Truck Series driver is not up to speed with what can only be titled the “new” NASCAR. That is, a NASCAR that endorses “team racing” as a legitimate and increasingly integral part of its sanctioned racing events. This became evident last Friday night during the running of the Craftsman Truck Series Casino Arizona 150 at Phoenix International Raceway, when Benson passed his Bill Davis Racing teammate Mike Skinner to better his finishing position. The supposed problem with that? Skinner is a championship contender, running neck-and-neck with Ron Hornaday Jr. for a title in which every point will make a difference. That Benson would have the audacity to pass a competitor in such a race stirred astonishment within the SPEED TV broadcasting booth, as well as obvious displeasure from his teammate.
And that, in turn, stirred displeasure from me.
It is truly a shame that what should be nothing short of an exciting season-ending championship point battle between Skinner and Hornaday Jr. for the 2007 CTS title is deteriorating into a sham that demonstrates how rapidly NASCAR racing is becoming less and less about “may the best man and machine win.” Instead, the sport is quickly spiraling downward to more of a team effort, wherein one team member is not encouraged to advance his position, but instead block for or yield altogether to another. And what’s worse, there seems to be a general buy-in to the concept by people like the veteran Skinner and racing veterans like Phil Parsons and Michael Waltrip.
Let’s start analyzing this one through the man most directly affected. Skinner, clearly agitated with Benson’s passing him for seventh place – costing him four points – opined after the race about his apparent misfortune.
“I’m not the boss. I guess we’re not a team,” Skinner said. “I thought he was taking care of me. I don’t know. I don’t want to comment on it.”
But, of course, he did comment on it – insinuating that Benson did him wrong.
It is hard to be too condescending towards Skinner, as he is in a tough spot. His championship-contending rival did have his team in place, and they worked their “roller derby” strategy to perfection. Kevin Harvick – Hornaday Jr’s. team owner – did his utmost to position his truck between Skinner and his driver all race long. If nothing else, Harvick was attempting to assure that his own driver would gain some points; for unless Hornaday unexpectedly slowed, it was clear that Harvick would not pass his truck.
As disgusting and contrary as I believe blocking or intentionally not racing any competitor for position is – especially when compared to what I consider auto racing should be – it’s nothing new in the world of NASCAR today. Team racing is apparently no longer a little hush-hush secret that may have been employed occasionally in past times; frankly, it’s become so commonplace nowadays, members of the same organization have no problem mentioning it on-air.
That much was evident during the waning laps of the race. Skinner – in an in-truck interview during a caution period – spoke with the SPEED TV broadcasters and laid out what he believed was a team strategy with his Bill Davis Racing teammate, Benson.
“My ‘guardian angel’ back here [Benson] really has took care of me,” he explained. “Kind of like Hornaday’s teammate [Harvick] is doing for him.”
Though I am struck by the unabashed admission by Skinner, whom I have always categorized as a hard-nosed “old-school” racer, the broadcasters’ acceptance of the team racing scenario that was playing out has convinced me that the sport is changing, and not for the better.
Late in the race, when Benson made a clean and easy-to-accomplish pass on Skinner, Waltrip excitedly exclaimed, “That is controversial there! Very controversial!” Phil Parsons immediately chimed in behind him: “Taking a position away from his teammate, and points away from a championship hunt, Johnny Benson now moves ahead of Skinner.”
Parsons and Waltrip continued during the last seven laps of the race to express their amazement that Benson had passed Skinner, along with seemingly equal surprise that Benson would not relinquish the position back to his teammate:
“Is Johnny Benson going to finish ahead of Mike Skinner?”
“Will he let him go back by and get those four points?”
“I cannot imagine Johnny Benson would not let Mike Skinner go back by.”
“Unbelievable! Johnny Benson stayed in front of Mike Skinner!”
“I cannot believe that, that’s four points, put that down in your notebook!”
“Obviously, no team orders there. Cost him four points. That could loom large when we get to Homestead next week.”
However, give credit to Waltrip for at least pointing out that Benson’s pass moved him ahead of Rick Crawford and into the top five in driver points. Crawford was hot on Benson’s bumper prior to his pass of Skinner, and the aggressive driving of the man behind the No. 23 Truck was what it took to keep himself up in the standings – continuing to give himself his own set of goals to race for.
No doubt, there is something “fishy” going on here in the world of NASCAR teams! In an interview I conducted with NASCAR’s Managing Director of Communications, Ramsey Poston, last month, I pointedly asked him what NASCAR’s position on “team orders” was. Poston said, “We really would like to think that no driver would pull over. But this is a team sport, to a degree, as well.” And then, the organization’s spokesman went on to explain that policing “team orders” would be difficult.
But how can NASCAR not, at this point, step in and abolish this practice? Or at least let the fans know to what “degree” this is a “team sport.” As I wrote in this column in an article entitled Move Over Jimmie, Let’s Let Jeff Get One For The Thumb there will be consequences if the practice of team orders, which amounts to nothing more than race “fixing,” is not brought under control.
Acceptance of the practice of teammates blocking for one another, giving up positions, or intentionally not racing each other cannot possibly bode well for the sport. But it certainly appears that there is a tacit approval of the practice by the governing organization, as not only Skinner’s comments during the race indicate, but that of the broadcast crew, as well.
And if the practice is not curbed now, where will it go from here?
Will it soon be acceptable for drivers from one group of manufacturer to work in unison with one another to get one of their manufacturer-supported teams into the 12-driver championship Chase?
If running interference for a teammate becomes any more acceptable than it appears to have been last Friday night, will a blocker eventually be a “bad teammate” if he isn’t able to prevent a competitor from getting by the favored car?
Such issues raise questions about the basic principle of motorsports. The truth is, there is only one way for drivers to race; and that is to the best of their ability, passing for every possible position they can. That is, in its simplest form, what American automobile racing has always been about.
It is important to note that there has been virtually no backlash against what transpired during the CTS race last week, and there has been very little criticism of the SPEED TV broadcasters for playing into the team racing concept by either race fans or the racing media. In fact, no one seems inclined to talk much about it. Bill Davis Racing, Harvick, Hornaday Jr. and for that matter even Benson have stayed mum on the subject.
But all the tight lips in the world won’t keep the team order issue from going away. And I am certain that at some point soon, something dramatic enough will occur involving the manipulation of race results by team owners that fans will demand that NASCAR, like Formula 1, step in and put a stop to it.
In the meantime, I am going to go out on a limb, as somewhat of a dinosaur of racing myself, and say that Johnny Benson has nothing to be ashamed of or to apologize for in racing Mike Skinner for a better finishing position. Teammate or not, he did the right thing.