NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: You Were Always On My Mind – Johnny Benson Ponders His Future in NASCAR

A lot of things must have been going through Johnny Benson’s mind Friday night at Phoenix.

Chief among them was probably, “…why did I just do that…” midway through a race while preparing to absorb the impact of a blast into the wall between turns 1 and 2 – with innocent bystander TJ Bell in tow (or plow, as the case may be since Benson was in front of him… and he was driving a truck). He was also probably wondering what he was going to have to do in order to finish in front of Ron Hornaday this weekend at Homestead and win the 2008 Craftsman Truck Series title that, for all intents and purposes, should have been on the shelf after Ron’s first-lap self-induced wreck that same night. Instead, heading into the final races of the season, Johnny suddenly holds a scant three-point lead over Hornaday.

But most important of all, he was also probably thinking, “…what am I going to do next year?”

LUNKENHEIMER: TRACKING THE TRUCKS AFTER PHOENIX

It was revealed last week that Benson would not be back behind the wheel of the No. 23 Bill Davis Toyota Tundra in 2009. The 45-year-old native of Grand Rapids, Mich., who is also the series’ Most Popular Driver – and points leader – is apparently out of his ride at BDR. So, what gives?

Right now, we’re not sure. But Benson, it seemed, was having a bit of a midlife racing crisis when appearing on the Tradin’ Paint Sirius Radio show last week.

“At this point in time, about three or four weeks ago I had a conversation with Bill Davis and, of course, the people up at Bill Davis Racing and I’m opting to try and do something different,” he said. “Now, I threw around the idea of maybe retiring at the end of the season; but when I had said that, a bunch of opportunities come up. It was like, you know what, am I going to retire? Am I going to try to do a part-time deal, go have some fun and spend time with the family, and go do just some off races and things of this nature?”

Uh, I don’t know, Johnny. Are you asking or are you telling? It was quite an honest look into the soul of a guy who knows he can clearly still compete at this level, but isn’t sure if he wants to. Instead, he’s assessing the same inner argument that other veterans in recent years must have wrestled with in recent years as they decided when to quit. Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Bill Elliott and Dale Jarrett come to mind. Given competitive equipment, all of them have proven that they can still compete. The real question is, did they really want to? Some have said yes, some have said no… but all have had this issue weighing on their minds at some point.

So, while the competition side of the equation is not in doubt, the compensation card was then raised by Benson.

“The Truck Series is such a great series, but you can go run 10 Cup races and make more money than to run the whole season. But I don’t necessarily know if I want to do that, either. Some of it is up in the air, but I think in the last two or three weeks there have been some opportunities for me to do something that I may like.”

There are many things in life and in motorsports that make you happy. Getting paid is certainly one of them, but the competition aspect is also quite another. Would you rather make a lot of money but run in the back all day long and pull over for Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards, or continue to race in a series that you are able to contribute to, and make a difference in?

“Now it seems kind of odd to do that – to be in a situation to run for a championship and then want to leave, but there’s a couple of other little issues and things of this nature,” Benson continued. “But the thing I like about this business, whether we win this championship or not, when I came over to Bill’s they were about 25th in points… 25th to 28th or something like that. We were able to build a team and move it up to a championship-contender scenario. I like doing those things. But I want to win a championship. I want to finish that off. But it is very cool to do those types of things, and I enjoyed that aspect of it. Obviously, I’d really like to get a championship, so if we can get that done this year that’d be great.”

So, what of 2009? It was rumored this past weekend that Benson will be heading to Red Horse Racing, taking both his current crew and sponsor with him to become teammates with David Starr. Benson’s current crew chief, Trip Bruce, is also expected to make the move to the Toyota team as well. The organization owned by former NASCAR championship-winning crew chief Jeff Hammond and Tom DeLoach is expected to field a full season effort for Benson, hopefully giving him a chance to defend the title he may win next weekend at Homestead.

By all accounts, it won’t be easy. Starr’s Red Horse Racing No. 11 is currently 12th in points, having scored a best finish of second this year at Mansfield after leading 170 of 250 laps. His only real knockout performance has been at New Hampshire when he went Chuck Liddell and started laying out Todd Bodine’s guys after a post-race fracas on pit road.

Still, while mergers and acquisitions seem to be all the rage in NASCAR lately in these difficult economic times, the likely addition of Benson and his current No. 23 crew to the DeLoach and Hammond effort could be a breath of fresh air. Loyalty is something sorely missing in motorsports these days, and the No. 23 team appears to be just that: a team comprised of a sponsor, driver, crew chief and over-the-wall guys who stand together with each other, and are making a move as a package deal.

Sticking around BDR for 2009 was never really an option of Benson, anyway. BDR has signed a young sprint car driver in Tayler Malsam, and there have been rumors that the operation as a whole is on the block to whomever shows up with the check in hand first.

Benson likes the notion of being able to build up a team and make it a contender, as he has a rich history of doing big things with the right people – if not in exactly less than ideal circumstances. Over a decade ago, he won Cup Rookie of the Year in 1996 with long-defunct Bahari Racing, nearly winning the Brickyard 400 in the process with a single-car team. In 1998, he drove the then-new No. 26 Roush Ford team into the top 10 in points early that year despite missing the season-opening Daytona 500. And speaking of Daytona, does anyone remember him nearly winning the 500 in 2000 with an essentially unsponsored car? He would drive that No. 10 machine to his first Nextel Cup win just two years later at Rockingham, his only victory in that series to date.

So, in 2009, Benson looks to work his magic again with a solid team and take them to the next level. But while he’ll certainly have a lot to think about in the offseason with this potentially burgeoning new venture, Benson has plenty on his plate this week to take care of first. And with any luck, he’ll have a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series championship trophy at the end of it to help him work through these tough decisions in the winter months ahead.

What a way that would be to take a load off your mind.

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