“I’m the best thing to ever happen to this high school!”
So were the words of my friend Ryan Volovlek. Were you to find a copy of Forest Hills Northern High School’s yearbook from 1995 titled Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights… clever, eh?), one would find those words forever immortalized under his picture as his senior quote. You would also be so fortunate as to see me, clad in the staple of early-mid ’90s fashion; a denim shirt and black jeans – no doubt something out of The Jerry Seinfeld Collection.
Before the days of Ryan proclaiming his greatness in the annals of history, and me executing brake stands in the parking lot with my 440 Super Commando-powered 1972 Plymouth ‘Cuda long before they became en vouge in NASCAR, there was another success story being written at the same high school in Grand Rapids, Michigan; that of Johnny Benson Jr. Long about the same time we all were being ushered out of a notable Midwestern amusement park, Johnny was in the process of winning the 1995 Busch Grand National championship driving the Lipton Tea No. 74 Chevrolet for BACE Motorsports. In 1996 he would win the Winston Cup Rookie of the Year title driving the then familiar No. 30 Pennzoil Pontiacs of Bahari Racing. A late-race pit miscue cost him the Brickyard 400 that year, though he did win his first career pole in only his fourth race in Atlanta that spring.
Long before all of this NASCAR success began, Benson had claimed the 1993 ASA title, much the same as Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace before him. Before that he won a track championship at Berlin Raceway in Marne, Mich. A couple of acquaintances of ours from high school also race there; Brian Maxim and Jack Drolema. His two-year stint at Roush Racing looked to be ready to pay the same dividends as it had to Martin and Jeff Burton at the time, but in the end it would prove to be more reflective of his other teammate at the time, Ted Musgrave.
A soft-spoken driver on and off the track, Benson has never been one to engage in the firesuit-grabbing escapades of Kevin Harvick or controversial comments of the Busch brothers. After defeating Ron Hornaday for the Craftsman Truck Series championship on Friday night – a fight that went down to the very last lap of the race – Hornaday was one of the first to come over and congratulate him for his efforts. It isn’t often that the guy who just got put on the trailer will come over and heap praise on the one who just sent him to the showers. That alone should tell you bibles full of truth about him as both a competitor and a person. Benson however is one of the rare breed of drivers in this sport that manages to be a fan favorite yet non-polarizing.
It isn’t a tightrope-walking act or show for the camera either. What you see is what you get. Blunt honesty with glasses.
While he no doubt capped off the year on a high note by winning the Truck title, you knew he was already a champion by the comments you would read in the press, from other drivers, and even among many Hornaday fans. It was a shame that only one guy would get to hoist the trophy, but if there had to only be one, they’d like to see Benson do it. You will never hear him get booed during driver introductions, and will never see a beer can exploding next to his car on the track in mid-victory-celebration burnout. That being said, how funny was it to see him go nose to nose with the pace car when doing his burnout Friday night? Speaking of the race… that was the best thing to happen to Championship Weekend, and probably the best race of the year in any series for that matter.
What would normally have been just another race at a 1.5-mile track bore a resemblance to a typical Talladega event. The principles involved were those who at one point in the season could have been implicated in contributing to Benson’s demise, should things not have turned out as they did. Kyle Busch was racing hard, but being mindful of who he was competing against; the same could not be said of Busch earlier this year at Martinsville, when he spun Benson on the last lap of a green/white/checkered finish. Hornaday himself could have very easily washed up into Benson a couple of times while battling for position, and could have very easily chalked it up to, “that’s racin’” had he done so.
Benson however has earned far more than a few Rookie of the Year titles, race wins, and various championships. He has earned the respect of everybody he competes against. Former Formula 1 driver turned stock car wheelman Scott Speed, following his first career win at Dover this year, gave a lot of the credit for his accelerated learning curve to Benson, and was grateful he had such a gracious and willing mentor as teammate. Ironically, Speed who lined up in front of Hornaday seemed to have a little bit of trouble getting going on the late restart Friday night.
But that’s neither here nor there.
Heading into Friday’s finale, there was much uncertainty surrounding Benson’s plans for 2009 and beyond. As a guest a week prior on the Sirius Satellite show Tradin’ Paint, Benson seemed unsure himself what he really wanted to do. Retire? Try to land a few Cup rides? Run a partial schedule? Walk around the house in his underwear scratching himself? Go to another team and try to build it into a contender as he did with Bill Davis Racing? After winning the Craftsman Truck championship, not much has changed. Benson is still mum on what his future holds, however adding the “NASCAR Truck Series Champion” prefix to his name has surely driven his stock higher, and more options will surely present themselves.
For the record, he has stated that he will likely remain in the truck series, and by all indications it will be with Jeff Hammond’s Red Horse Racing.
Whatever opportunities become available next year, be they defending his championship title in the newly-branded Camping World Series, the occasional Sprint Cup ride or some television work, it is of little question whether or not Johnny Benson will be successful. There must be something in the water by way of Lake Michigan, as we have produced quite a number of notable racing personalities. Who knew that West Michigan was such a bastion of racing success? Johnny Benson, Jack Sprague, Bob Senneker… heck, you can technically count me in too while you’re at it. What’s the old saying? Those who can’t do, teach. Those who can’t teach, uh, write about it. Come to think of it, Johnny, Ryan and myself all had the same instructor for Tech Drawing at Forest Hills Northern. OK, so maybe he ended up doing a little bit more with it than I did. Johnny is after all, the best thing that ever happened to that high school.