Benson best Las Vegas finish

He isn't a big gambler or a high roller, but Johnny Benson and his ...

He isn't a big gambler or a high roller, but Johnny Benson and his #10 Valvoline Pontiac team flew home from the 1.5-, mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway Sunday night with a fourth-place finish and a $129,800 check -- the second highest pay day in Benson's 6-year Winston Cup career.

But Benson and company must wait until the 600-mile race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May to know just how much money they made during the NASCAR Winston Cup Series' annual trip to Las Vegas. By posting a top five finish, for the first time in his career Benson will participate in Winston's No Bull 5 contest that offers a fan and the team a million dollars if he wins at Charlotte.

"Man, that is going to be a blast when we get to Charlotte," Benson said seconds after climbing from the car Sunday afternoon where his fourth-place finish equaled his 1999 performance at Vegas. "It's hard to believe how far we have come in such a short time and getting to try for all that money at Charlotte is going to make life pretty interesting that week."

Benson earned his entry into the contest by turning in a steady effort throughout the 400-mile race that also saw him lead four laps. The overcast sky and dropping temperature contributed to a tight condition on the final run of the race that prevented Benson from catching Sterling Marlin for third place. Jeff Gordon won Sunday's race, earning $1.3 million, and was followed closely across the finish line by Dale Jarrett.

"That was a good run for us today," Benson said. "We thought we had a shot at the win. But if we keep running like we did today then the victories are going to come."

Benson started Sunday's race in second place and fell back two spots immediately after the green flag fell as he bided his time knowing his car was specifically set up for long green flag runs. By lap 20 he was fifth and after the first rounds of pit stops lined-up eighth on the grid.

By lap 33 Benson dropped to eighth, but then the Benson started to storm through the field passing Steve Park and following the advice of Crew Chief James Ince who insisted Benson "keep air on the nose of that car."

With the downforce gained by staying out of the turbulence created by traffic, Benson passed Jerry Nadeau for sixth and Ron Hornaday for fifth by lap 50.

"You may have the fastest car on the track," Ince told Benson over the team radio. "The guys up in front are wearing their stuff out and you should be catching them shortly.'"

He did just as Ince predicted.

Benson passed Bobby Labonte for fourth on lap 51 then Marlin on lap 76 for third and by lap 82 he drove by Todd Bodine for second. A 15-second pitstop returned him to the track right on the tail of Dale Jarrett who he passed on lap 90. As the back markers finally came in for gas, Benson assumed the lead which he held from laps 94 to 97 until he pitted for two tires during a caution period.

Benson returned to the track in sixth because several other lead lap cars remained on the track. When the green flag flew he continued his move to the front climbing as high as fourth by lap 155. Then he used another 15-second stop to move up to third.

"Race hard because we have one more stop," Ince told Benson.

The caution flew again for Hut Stricklin's accident and Benson drove by Mark Martin to claim second place. A caution for Mike Wallace's accident on lap 177 brought the field into the pits where Benson dropped to seventh after a 16.7-second pit stop for four tires while some cars elected only two tires.

"Just run the wheels off it now," encouraged Ince.

At lap 183 Benson passed Bill Elliott for sixth at lap 183 then Nadeau for fifth on lap 209. As the laps wound down Ince faced a decision on how best to catch the leaders and get his driver his initial victory in Winston Cup.

"We are going to gamble our top ten. But you want to win don't you, JB?" Ince asked.

It didn't take long for Benson to answer.

"Damn right, that's the only reason we are here."

On lap 232 Benson was the first of the leaders to pit and surprised the field by taking four tires. It also scared the field because all of the leaders followed suit taking four tires as well.

"They are doing just what we did," Ince reported to Benson.

In the final laps Benson continued his charge passing Todd Bodine for fourth, but couldn't quite catch Marlin as the checkered flag waved.

When he climbed from the car, Benson learned that only his 12th place finish at Daytona in 2000 paid more than Sunday's payday. Benson moved to sixth in the 2001-point standings just 74 points behind leader Marlin.

"We don't race for money and we don't race for points," Benson said. "We race for wins and we aren't going to be satisfied until we win."

Benson and his Valvoline teammates return to action Sunday in Atlanta.

More Benson:

"The Valvoline Pontiac was pretty awesome. It was just a little too tight the last two runs, but we can't be any happier. James Ince and the guys did a tremendous job. We're happy with fourth. We thought maybe we had a shot at it, but we just needed it to be a little more loose."

(ON QUALIFYING FOR THE NEXT NO BULL 5 RACE)  "Hey, I forgot about that. That
was the game plan.  I mean the game plan was to try to win, but to get an
orange spoiler on this thing is cool.  We're real happy about that. We
really wanted to go for the win.  That's why we gambled, coming in and
getting four tires.  James said, 'We can do two or you can gamble and go for
the win.'  I said, 'Man, I rather gamble.  That's what we're here for."
(HOW WAS THE RACING OUT THERE?)  "I thought it fine.  Everywhere I was at
all day long everything was pretty cool.  I just love coming out here to Las
Vegas.  One of these days we're going to get one of these wins."

(ON YOU THINKING ABOUT POINTS YET?) "We're thinking about wins. We've got to go for the wins. We'll worry about the points, but we're going for the wins this year to get ourselves consistent and get ourselves running fast."

JAMES INCE, CREW CHIEF, NO. 10 VALVOLINE PONTIAC GRAND PRIX:

"The biggest thing for us as a race team is that we're getting stronger every week. If we can keep putting in these performances, we'll get our races. We're just trying to grow a race team right now. Yeah, it's great to run up front and that's what we're going to do. But it's pretty neat to sit back and watch this team come together and grow."

(IT LOOKED LIKE YOU DICTATED STRATEGY IN THE LAST 50 LAPS) "You've got to do what you've got to do. We weren't in a position to be up front to win the race, so I figured that I could control the race if I was the first one brave enough to go do it. Sometimes you've got to take those gambles. Today it worked out and got us a top five."

(WHY THE SUCCESS AT LAS VEGAS - SIXTH LAST YEAR, FOURTH THIS YEAR?) "I think the biggest thing is that if we're going to get on an airplane and fly 3,000 miles, we're going to make sure we run good."

-Drew Brown

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About this article
Series Monster Energy NASCAR Cup
Drivers Bill Elliott , Jeff Gordon , Dale Jarrett , Bobby Labonte , Todd Bodine , Steve Park , Sterling Marlin , Jerry Nadeau , Mike Wallace , Hut Stricklin , Johnny Benson , Ron Hornaday Jr. , Drew Brown