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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

What’s Vexing Vito: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished – Johnny Benson Ousted From Red Horse Racing

“I have a lot of faults Brad, but ingratitude isn’t one of them.” – George C. Scott in Patton – 1970

That line came to mind this week, when it was announced by Red Horse Racing, that defending Camping World Truck Series champion Johnny Benson Jr. was being booted from the No. 1 Toyota Tundra. Despite being seventh in points, only 155 markers out of first, Benson was put out to pasture. Rather than retaining Benson’s services, the team has elected to retain TJ Bell, a 28 year-old driver with zero wins and a smattering of top-10 finishes throughout his six-year career. In a year where nothing seems to be making much sense anywhere you turn, pencil this in as yet another instance of NASCAR racing in general taking a turn for the worse.

Not that this is the first time that Benson has been bounced for reasons that can only make sense to those delusional enough to do something so utterly stupid.

Let’s rewind the clock a bit, circa 1990. I remember going to Berger Chevrolet in Grand Rapids, Michigan for a Dale Earnhardt meet and greet; the Intimidator, in the flesh, up close and personal. Seated next to him was a younger guy in his late 20s. I assumed it was one of the Berger guys who was there organizing pictures for people to pick up for Big E to sign, and keeping some overly eager super fan – or worse yet – a Rusty Wallace fan – at bay. As I walked by him, another man standing next to him stopped me and said, “Here, have one of Johnny’s pictures too!”

I looked at Benson… and had absolutely no clue who he was.

Benson and this other gentleman both kind of laughed, and the man said something to the effect of, “Don’t worry Johnny, you’ll get there someday.”

Way back then, Benson Jr. was running in the now-defunct ASA Series in his very first season. He would go on to win ASA Rookie of the Year that season, and eventually the 1993 championship. After claiming Rookie of the Year honors in what was then the Busch Grand National Series, Benson then won the Busch Grand National championship in 1995 – the same year I graduated from Forest Hills Northern High School – where Benson had graduated 14 years earlier. Following his Busch triumph, Benson moved the bright yellow Pennzoil Pontiacs recently vacated by Michael Waltrip, where he promptly took home 1996 Rookie of the Year honors in Winston Cup while nearly winning the Brickyard 400 in the process. Benson moved to Roush Racing for 1998, joining the juggernaut of five teams that featured Mark Martin and Jeff Burton driving the new mega-downforce Taurus which would run roughshod through Cup all season long.

Then began the unraveling – which began in 1998, and took nearly a decade to complete.

After reeling off seven top 10s in nine races, he would only score three more ninth-place finishes the rest of the year. Benson became the team guinea pig and development mule, running the new in-house Roush Kraft chassis. Things got worse the next season, scoring only two top 10s, as Benson would leave to drive unsponsored Pontiacs owned by a con man, nearly winning the Daytona 500 in the process. That team would eventually become MB2 Motorsports, with Benson winning the first race for the team at Rockingham in 2002. The next year would be Benson’s last in the Cup Series, as Valvoline decided to jump on the “young gun” bandwagon, and dispatched Benson – the perpetual Rookie of the Year and Series champion – for Scott Riggs.

I think we all know how that one panned out.

Never one to wallow in his own sorrow, Benson began to pick up rides in the Nationwide Series and Craftsman Truck Series. Even on a limited schedule with make-shift teams, Benson was as always able to get the most out of his equipment, run better than the team should have, and brought it home in one piece. He would end up going full-time with Bill Davis Racing in 2005, and was runner up in the 2006 points standings. In 2008, he won the then CTS championship, more or less on the last lap, by a scant seven points.

A few days later, the bottom fell out of the economy, and the boom that was NASCAR, finally went bust. BDR laid off all but a handful of employees, as hundreds in the NASCAR community joined the ranks of millions of other Americans in the unemployment line.

BDR was scuttled like the Oriskany just a couple of weeks after claiming the championship. After bailing out of one sinking ship, Benson would join Red Horse Racing, a less than spectacular outfit, as evidence by their perpetual lack of sponsorship or support. One would think that having the defending series champion in your truck within striking distance of the points lead would provide enough motorvation to keep him in the place, and shelve the part-timer who has nine top 10s in six years of competition.

Benson himself seemed blind-sided by the announcement this week. “The decision to close the team is a bit surprising because they told me they wanted to build a championship-caliber race team,” he said. “They hired a champion driver and a champion crew, and then decide to close the team instead of building the organization around it. So I am a little confused.”

Sponsors tend to pick up on performance, and you tend to attract a little more attention running up front than you do tooling around in the 20s and 30s as Bell has done this season. This decision to bench a proven winner, championship winning driver, and all around good-guy like Benson, Jr. borders on nothing short of betrayal. Spare me the litany about the economy and how it’s a business decision. If it is, then it is A. a poor business decision and B. one that will ensure that RHR is no longer a viable business.

I am pretty sure there will be no government bailout of RHR either.

Not only was this a bad move professionally, it is a horrible move publicly, particularly since the series is headed to Michigan International Speedway this weekend, in Benson’s backyard. Benson Jr. made his first start here back in 1993, catching some Carl Edwards-quality air with a tumble down the backstretch in Ernie Irvan’s No. 4 Kodak Chevrolet on the very first lap in a Busch Series race. Last season at this same event, he came off turn 4 door to door with Erik Darnell, and you could hear the crowd on the frontstretch over the combined 1,700 horsepower that was thundering to the start/finish line. The scoring monitor said Benson came up .005 seconds short, but to the naked eye, I’m still not convinced he didn’t get their first.

You’d think that Red Horse(‘s ass) Racing would have at least had the common decency to show up to his home track, and maybe – possibly – secure some funding for the weekend, perhaps even beyond should he post a strong performance or God-forbid, even win. But such has been the story throughout Benson Jr.’s career, for all of his efforts and success, he is often repaid with ingratitude and indifference. As unfortunate as it was to see Benson lose Sprint Cup rides to lesser-qualified and capable individuals in the past, this latest E Tu, Brute? move is probably the most puzzling and uncontainable to date.

Call me cynical, a homer, or just somebody who has followed Johnny Benson Jr.’s career from the beginning, but when it comes to Benson and NASCAR, one thing is for certain: No good deed goes unpunished.