Besnson Darlington race notes

They had perhaps one of the fastest race cars and the best race strategy of the 43 NASCAR Winston Cup teams racing at the venerable Darlington Raceway on Sunday. ...

They had perhaps one of the fastest race cars and the best race strategy of the 43 NASCAR Winston Cup teams racing at the venerable Darlington Raceway on Sunday.

#10 Valvoline Pontiac driver Johnny Benson and Crew Chief James Ince seemed ready to capitalize on one of their best chances for that coveted first victory. As Benson entered the pits in first place with just 68 laps left in the race it appeared he and Ince and their Valvoline Racing teammates would be the team to beat in the closing laps.

But the pit stop didn't go according to plan.

After turning 15-second and 14-second times the previous two stops, a loose lug nut noticed by the NASCAR inspector forced the Valvoline pit crew to return to the right side of the car slowing the pit stop to over 20 seconds. It dropped Benson to eighth place.

When the checkered flag flew an hour later, Benson finished seventh for the second consecutive weekend -- good enough to move him into a tie for second place in the driver's point standings but little consolation to the team.

"We think we kind of gave the race away today," said Ince who held a team meeting in the hauler after the race. "I told them our car looked really good on the track and our strategy was working perfectly. But we kind of shot ourselves in the foot with that stop. But we aren't going to hang our heads. The guys that built this car that looked so good today are the same guys who are going to make these stops faster.

"This race team has been through more adversity than anything that can happen on a pit stop so I have no doubt we are going to come through this."

The driver didn't hang his head either.

"They gave me a good car today and I think we had a chance to win," Benson said. "But we are still learning to win. Once we do then I think you are going to see us rattle off a couple in a row. I don't know if we could have hung on today but there will be a day when we do win one. I have no doubt about that."

Benson began Sunday's race in fourth place after fog made qualifying impossible Saturday morning forcing the drivers to start the race by owner points. Benson stayed between fourth and sixth throughout the first three-quarters of the race.

The Valvoline team parlayed a good running car with some nifty strategy as teams prepared for the first green flag pitstops of the day. While running fourth, Ince brought Benson in a few laps early to take advantage of the faster speeds new tires produced. Benson emerged from the pit cycle with a several second lead on Steve Park and managed to maintain that lead for 25 laps then the caution flew for Ron Hornaday's accident on lap 225.

"We were pretty happy with the way the car was handling then," Benson said. "Our strategy worked like we wanted it to and I think we were looking good there for the run to the end."

After returning to the track in eighth Benson managed to climb back up to seventh. But a tight handling condition and a slight brush of the wall made further passing difficult. Benson moved to sixth then pitted under caution at lap 278 as the #24 pit crew serviced Benson and returned him to the track in seventh place where he ended the race.

"We have a philosophy on this team that we will do whatever it takes to win and nobody will hang their heads. The Hendrick guys fell out and we asked if they would help us out at the end and maybe gets us back a couple of those spots," Ince said.

"We want to win. Winning is more important than anyone's feelings on this team. Our guys understand that because they want to win as much as anybody in the garage."

While the Valvoline team might be frustrated about what happened Sunday it continues to make progress in the standings moving into a tie with Sterling Marlin for second spot. Benson trails Sunday's winner Dale Jarrett by 65 points.

"It's too early to worry about points, but yes we are proud of what we have done so far. We want to win races. That's our goal but after races comes points and we are doing pretty well so far."

Benson and his teammates return to action this weekend at Bristol where he finished second last year.

JOHNNY BENSON, NO. 10 VALVOLINE PONTIAC GRAND PRIX:

ON HIS FOURTH CONSECUTIVE TOP 10

"It was a good run for us. We thought we had them in a good position there right at the end, but we faltered a little bit and fell back. We got tight and just struggled a little bit, probably the last 30 laps of the race. But all and all, [crew chief] James Ince and everybody on the Valvoline Pontiac team is just doing an awesome job. I can't ask for them to do any better. We've got some areas that we need to work on. But in the same token, we're going to lose some together and we're going to win some together."

ON JEFF GORDON'S CREW PITTING HIS CAR

"We just had some problems on the stop just before that one. We probably shouldn't have changed, but in the same token we needed to get back up there because we felt like if we could get back in the top two up there, we felt like maybe we could pull off a win. The '24' had [mechanical] problems and we run their engines, so we just asked them for a little bit of help.

"Our guys are still doing a tremendous job. We've been just a little inconsistent there and we need to be a little bit better. I think that with practice they're going to be good. We want them to pit the car. It wasn't meant as disrespect to anybody on the pit crew. We just needed to gain back those seven spots that we lost to see if we could. Plus, I bent the car up a little bit and they (the '24' crew) are a little bit more used to handling those deals than what we are as a team right now, so we just asked for a little help."

ON BEING SO CONSISTENT TO START THE YEAR

"Everybody on this Valvoline Pontiac team is just doing a tremendous job. I'm real happy with them. We're going to get one (a win). I'm just not sure when. I have felt that every year that we've run. They're just doing a great job and I'm happy."

ON BEING TIED FOR SECOND IN POINTS - HIS HIGHEST CAREER RANKING EVER

"We're not worrying about that. We're five races in - c'mon. I think this team is great. I don't know if we're a championship caliber race team yet. We're learning to try to be and I think that is important for us to realize that. We've started off great and I think that is obviously going to be good throughout the whole year. But in the same token, I think that we'll have a better shot next year than we will this year because we're still learning. We're still learning as a team. It's still relatively new for all of us guys to be together. We're working hard. I'm real proud of these guys and I just hope we're going to be really good in the future."

HOW IS THIS TEAM DIFFERENT THAN LAST YEAR'S TEAM?

"It's the same group as last year. A lot of people think this is a new race team, but it's not. It's the same team as last year. We just moved into a new shop after Daytona, which is pretty exciting for everybody. We're actually real pleased with how we're running considering we're still trying to move into the building - we're still not fully moved in - and there are a lot of things going on right now, so I'm real proud of these guys."

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

ON THE DECISION TO USE JEFF GORDON'S PIT CREW ON THE FINAL PIT STOP

"Basically, these guys {the '10' crew) have done a great job. We're in a situation where I feel like this is three races in a row that we've had opportunities to win that we've hurt ourselves. The guys are not doing bad pit stops. The guys are doing high-15 second stops. It's unfortunate the '24' car had trouble. That's kind of a sister team to us. We saw an opportunity to try to make up some of the spots we had lost by leaving a lug nut off and to see where our problem is, where it lies and where we can improve. These guys do an awesome job. The advantage that some teams have that we don't is that the same guys that screw these race cars together that make them awfully fast race cars on Sunday are the same guys that are pitting them. We might be at a disadvantage with that right now. "Right now we're just searching to find whatever we've got to find to win races. We come to these things to win. We don't come to run in the top 10. We don't come to run in the top five. Right down to replacing the crew chief or the driver or a pit crew member, whatever it takes to win races - our egos are above the fact that we will do whatever it takes to get that done.

"Everybody understands that or they wouldn't work on this race team. We make it very clear as you come in the door - and I think everybody has heard me say that I can do more with personality than other people can do with talent. I firmly believe that. We're all going the same direction. We're all doing the same thing, so when we have trouble we go find it. If we had motor trouble, we'd go analyze what the motor problem was. If we have car trouble, we go analyze that. If we break a shock, we figure out how to fix it.

"Today we had pit crew trouble for the third time and we needed to analyze it. I've really got to thank those guys on the Dupont team for coming down and helping us out. But we are going to work through our problems because this is a race team that can win races. We've just got to continue to fix our little problems."

WOULD YOU HAVE MADE THE SAME DECISION IF YOU WERE FURTHER DOWN IN THE POINTS INSTEAD OF TIED FOR SECOND?

"Absolutely. The point thin hasn't even become an issue with us. If anything, we're practicing to win a championship. When we sat down last year, we said, 'We're going to win a championship in 2002.' We discussed that openly in our shop, and point blank, that's what our goal is. This year, any practice we get towards doing that is fine. My motivation is that I've lost a hell of a lot of these things and I'm not willing to lose any more, especially when we've got a shot."

YOU HELD A POST-RACE MEETING WITH THE TEAM. WHAT WAS THE TONE OF THAT MEETING?

"Basically we just talked to the guys, explained the deal to them and made sure that everybody is on the same page and make sure that nobody is going home with their head hanging down - kind of the same thing we did after we missed the Atlanta show last year. This is one race team. We're all one unit. The crew chief, the driver, the car owners aren't above anybody in this shop, and we're going to make sure that everybody agreed with the decision we made. That's how we keep that vein flowing the same through the shop."

DO YOU FEEL LIKE EVERYBODY IS ON THE SAME PAGE?

"I think so. I think everybody is pretty pleased with our performance, even though we're highly disappointed with where we ended up, but that's a good sign for us. We're heartbroken about running seventh. I think that's good."

-Drew Brown

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About this article
Series Monster Energy NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Jarrett , Steve Park , Johnny Benson , Ron Hornaday Jr. , Drew Brown