Benson duels way to third at Texas

As Eagle One Pontiac driver Johnny Benson adjusted his seatbelts and mashed the gas to clear out his 750-horsepower engine getting ready for the restart at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday his 20-crew members, the 200,000 fans in the stands, and ...

As Eagle One Pontiac driver Johnny Benson adjusted his seatbelts and mashed the gas to clear out his 750-horsepower engine getting ready for the restart at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday his 20-crew members, the 200,000 fans in the stands, and millions watching on national television wondered if he could pull it off.

His Valvoline Racing Crew Chief James Ince knew the task ahead and gave his race-leading driver a few last-second words of encouragement.

"OK Hero, this is your deal now," Ince said over the team radio as the scoreboard showed there were just 18 laps left before the checkered flag flew. "No matter what happens in this deal we are here with you man. You've drove a heck a race today. Let's see if we can bring it home."

Benson responded:

"I'll do what I can guys," he said with a mixture of confidence and apprehension. "I don't know if we can hold them off, but we'll run the wheels of this car."

And he did, with almost miraculous results.

When the green flag flew, Benson began an 18-lap journey trying to fend off the 20 or so freshly shod cars that were on the lead lap and desperately rumbling to the front of the field. Everyone wanted the lead but they were going to have to take it away from Benson.

Benson inherited the lead when he and Ince decided to forego a final pit stop as the rest of the leaders visited pit road. While the move propelled him from ninth to first gaining valuable track position it put him at a disadvantage to the cars behind.

Those cars with new tires were sure to eat up Benson's lead in mere seconds. But it turned out to be a lot more exciting than anyone expected.

Benson jumped on the gas as soon as the green flag fell and maintained the lead as the pack roared into the first turn. By the time he drove by the pits again he had increased his lead by several car lengths and the laps started to slowly come off the scoreboard.

Time was the only thing standing between Benson and his first career victory.

A few laps later the war began as Jeff Gordon tried to draw along side several times but couldn't manage to pull ahead. Kurt Busch also gave it his best shot but failed to pass the black Eagle One Pontiac.

More laps ticked off the scoreboard.

With 10 laps to go, Benson's nemesis from the past loomed in his rear view mirror. Dale Jarrett had just dispatched both Gordon and Busch and set his sights on Benson - reminiscent of last year's Daytona 500 when Jarrett led a Ford freight train past Benson's then unsponsored car in the final three laps spoiling what would have been one of the sport's greatest upset victories.

"I really didn't think about Daytona as I saw Dale Coming," Benson said after the race. "I just knew he and (Steve) Park had new tires and I was going to do my best to make them work to pass me. As fast as they were coming I didn't want them to run over me and ruin our day. But I wasn't about to let them by either."

Jarrett narrowed the gap as another lap or two came off the scoreboard.

"Make sure you run the inside lane and then push him near the wall when you come off the corner," advised Ince as he watched the duel on the track's jumbo television screen.

Benson followed Ince's advice and held Jarrett off, but the former Winston Cup champion finally slipped past Benson with just eight laps left in the 334-lap race.

The war wasn't over.

Steve Park and Benson waged a similar wheel-to-wheel dual that ended when Park, with his fresh tires, also drove by the #10 car. Benson might have lost out to Jarrett and Park but wasn't about to let another pass. He and Kurt Busch battled, but Benson managed to pull away on the final lap and take a hard-earned third-place place finish.

The performance moved him to third in the 2001 driver point standings behind Jarrett who won the race and Jeff Gordon who finished fifth. Park finished second and Busch finished fourth on Sunday.

"I really didn't know what was going to happen there at the end," laughed Benson. "We try to make it exciting for the fans and the Valvoline folks every time we come to a race and I think we did just that today."

Benson said the end-of-the-race strategy was as much about common sense as it was with gambling.

"If we had come in and put on tires and gone back out ninth I'm not sure we would have climbed any higher than sixth so we said what the heck we are here to win and let's go for it."

Benson said he knows that first victory isn't far away.

"No we aren't disappointed today," he said. "We know that if we keep running like this it will come. We are third in points and that is pretty impressive. We are feeling really good about ourselves now."

Benson started Sunday's race in 17th and began a steady march to the front once the green flag fell. He moved to tenth by lap 20 and led a lap early in the race when he and Ince elected a two-tire stop while others took on four new tires. When the pit strategies were the same, Benson appeared to be about the sixth quickest car on the track and was running ninth when he implemented the end of the race strategy.

Benson and his Valvoline Racing teammates return to action Sunday at the flat half-mile track in Martinsville, Va.

-Drew Brown

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About this article
Series Monster Energy NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Dale Jarrett , Steve Park , Kurt Busch , Johnny Benson , Drew Brown