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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Johnny Benson Jr. NASCAR’s Longest Overnight Success Story

There are, to be sure, a number of unsung heroes in NASCAR. You can find them in a number of capacities with many in the more obvious sources: pit crew members, the guys in the fabrication shop, tire specialists, transporter drivers or even the person in charge of preparing food for the team. These positions are all to be celebrated and honored, as there is no task too great or too small in racing to go unrecognized. In that same vein, there are many drivers who do not get the recognition that they rightly deserve. That notion brought to mind one driver in particular: Johnny Benson Jr.

As of this writing, Benson currently sits in ninth in the Craftsman Truck Series points standings after losing four spots courtesy of Sprint Cup regular Kyle Busch, who made an ill-advised attempt to pass Benson for second place on the final lap in the Kroger 250. Even after the incident, however, Benson remains solidly in position to challenge for the CTS championship. Should he win the title, he would become just the third driver to win titles in both the Nationwide and Truck series.

Now, you may be asking just when Benson ever won a Nationwide (or a Busch Series) title. That would be way back in 1995, at a time when Cup regulars competed only sporadically throughout the season, never attempting an all-out assault on the championship. Benson won two races that season, propelling him into the big time where he succeeded Michael Waltrip in the then-familiar yellow No. 30 Pennzoil Pontiac of Bahari Racing the following year. Benson won Rookie of the Year honors as a Cup rookie in ’96 and even found himself in position to win the Brickyard 400 until a pit-road miscue with a handful of laps remaining denied him what looked to be his first victory in the series.

Unfortunately, that win would have to wait a few more years. Several, actually.

Following a two-year stint at Bahari that produced zero wins despite numerous strong runs, Benson fielded what was to become the fourth car in Roush Racing’s five-car juggernaut in 1998. Having missed the Daytona 500 due to an accident in one of the qualifying races and having no previous years owner points, Benson and company rebounded to post eight top-10 finishes in the season’s first 11 races. Unfortunately, that’s where things went awry.

The remainder of the season produced only three additional top 10s, and things were so bleak that Steve Hmiel, one of the founding members of Jack Roush’s racing empire, left the team. Things did not get much better the next year, as Benson rode the crew chief carousel to a pair of top 10s while serving as the R&D mule for the new in-house RoushKraft chassis. Benson exited at season’s end, and the No. 26 team was dissolved.

In 2000, that left Benson coming to Daytona in an unsponsored white Pontiac, the remnants of what once was the Tim Beverley team with Darrell Waltrip behind the wheel. He ran competitively during Speedweeks and landed a sponsor on the eve of the 500 in Lycos.com, although the sponsorship was worth little more than the price of the decal itself. But that didn’t stop Benson; he ran well in the 500, and with 42 laps to go put the No. 10 machine on the point. The irony was lost on no one, as Benson took the lead from former Roush teammate Mark Martin and looked primed to do the impossible: win the Daytona 500 with a new team in an essentially unsponsored car. But the irresistible force of a train of Fords was Benson’s undoing when a late-race caution forced a restart; Dale Jarrett wrestled the lead from him, and Benson slid back to 12th at the finish. The team continued to impress as the season wore on despite being a single-car outfit with minimal sponsorship, not exactly tops on the General Motors totem pole.

The Tim Beverley-owned operation was absorbed by Nelson Bowers before the 2001 season, and became part of the MBV Motorsports franchise (later MB2 Racing). Benson acquired the longtime sponsor of the No. 6 Roush Ford, Valvoline, who also secured part ownership of the operation at the time. Turned out it was for the best, as Beverly was later convicted of money laundering and fraud.

In the meantime, his former team soldiered on, as Benson snatched defeat from the jaws of victory on several occasions in ’01. Pit issues often derailed the team that was headed by one of the most brilliant young minds in racing at the time, James Ince. The team did manage to win the Winston Open that year after Ryan Newman‘s engine expired in grand fashion, and it seemed it would not be long until Benson finally captured a points-paying victory that had been so long in coming.

Returning to action after being injured twice during the middle portion of the 2002 season, Benson ran second to Kurt Busch at the fall Martinsville event. Two weeks later, he found himself in position to win once again, this time at Rockingham. Ironically, it came down to a battle between Benson and the two top guns at Roush Racing, Kurt Busch and Martin. Benson held off Martin over the final few laps to claim his first and only win to date in the Sprint Cup Series. It was welcomed medicine for a driver and team who had fought so hard, doing more with less and managing to build something out of what had been nothing just a couple of years earlier.

Benson’s team had planned the mother of all burnouts for the special occasion. Following the obligatory donuts, the team had planned to run onto the track, flip the car over and spin it around on its roof. NASCAR got wind of the idea, though, and kept the team from performing the most bizarre race-winning ritual ever witnessed.

The next season would be Benson’s last in the Cup Series. Poor performance was the result of General Motors’ decision to not invest further in the newly-redesigned Grand Prix that only a handful of smaller, less competitive teams ran. Benson struggled, and he was unceremoniously ousted with a year remaining on his contract to James Rocco in favor of a younger driver in Scott Riggs, essentially falling victim to the “Young Gun” craze of the day. Benson finished strong, though, wheeling the Valvoline Pontiac to a fourth-place finish in the final race of 2003 at Homestead, his last to date in a full-time capacity on the Sprint Cup circuit.

Since that time, Benson has competed in the CTS, reinventing himself yet again. What was once a stepping stone to both Nationwide and Cup level racing, the Truck Series has, in recent years, become the Senior Tour of sorts for NASCAR. Drivers such as Mike Skinner, Todd Bodine, Ted Musgrave¬†and the late Bobby Hamilton Sr. helped add legitimacy to the series. Benson has been a driving force behind Toyota’s involvement since he joined the circuit in 2004, piloting his No. 23 Bill Davis Tundra to nine wins thus far.

Benson has won the Most Popular Driver award in the Truck Series the last two years, proving that nice guys do indeed finish first every now and then. And with any luck, something that has been sorely missing throughout Benson’s NASCAR career, there will be many more wins and awards to come. If he can avoid late-race mishaps such as those at Martinsville this past weekend, NASCAR’s longest overnight success story, that of Johnny Benson Jr., may possibly claim a much-deserved championship in 2008.

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