You can't blame Johnny Benson if he laughs a little bit whenever someone asks about his career in NASCAR Winston Cup racing. Sometimes he laughs just to mask how serious he takes the question. "Which half do you want to talk about," Benson asks...
You can't blame Johnny Benson if he laughs a little bit whenever someone asks about his career in NASCAR Winston Cup racing. Sometimes he laughs just to mask how serious he takes the question.
"Which half do you want to talk about," Benson asks smiling. "The first two years or the last two years? Or can we talk about the next two years? That's what I think will be the most exciting."
This son of a Michigan racing champion and a champion in his own right has had more ups and downs in his first four years in Winston Cup racing than an Internet stock on Wall Street.
The 35-year-old's career is easily summarized. He enjoyed two years of success at Bahari' Racing when most thought he wouldn't and he endured two years of frustration at Roush Racing when most thought success was near.
And now his future is at Tyler Jet Motorsports where team-owner Tim Beverley says his single-car team "is the most overlooked team going into the 2000 season."
But Benson tells his new owner that's just how he likes it.
"Maybe getting ignored early in the season is just the way we need it. It seems like back when I drove for a close knit, single car team everyone was focusing their attention on building cars and making them go faster. There weren't any distractions," said Benson.
"That's going to be the case with this Tyler Jet team. We are going to focus on one team, one driver and there should be no distractions. We are going to make racing fun again for the guys and myself on the crew. If people don't give us much of a chance that's fine. We will change their minds when we prove ourselves on the track."
Benson has proved himself throughout his career. Growing up in Grand Rapids, Mich. he learned racing from his father John Benson whose list of victories in late models, sprint cars, modifieds and supermodifieds is too lengthy to list but his racing prowess once earned him a picture on the cover of Stock Car Racing Magazine.
His only son worked his way through late models earning track championships then onto the American Speed Association where he won the rookie of the year award in 1990 and the championship in 1993 - an accomplishment in a series that has produced the likes of Alan Kulwicki, Mark Martin, and Rusty Wallace.
Benson's first try in NASCAR saw him climb into Ernie Irvan's Busch car in front of the homefolks at Michigan Speedway in 1993 only to go barrel-rolling down the backstretch on lap 3. The car now sits at the bottom of a pond at Irvan's house.
But he didn't give up. He vows as long as it's fun he will never give up in racing.
He returned with a vengeance in 1994 to run the full season for BACE Motorsports where he earned rookie of the year honors as well as claimed a victory at Dover in only his 29th race. The 1995 season saw Benson and BACE earn their first Busch Series championship while winning at Atlanta and Hickory.
In 1997, Benson moved to Winston Cup driving the Bahari' Racing Pontiacs - a team that had rarely threatened to win and had never finished in the top ten in points. Many thought Benson would be an afterthought during his rookie season as he learned the ropes of Winston Cup. But it didn't take him long to show that his driving skills and dedicated crewmembers could overcome the bigger buck teams.
The Bahari'-Benson combination won the pole at Atlanta in Benson's fourth Winston Cup race and in August during his first visit to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Benson's bright-yellow car came from mid-pack to lead 70 laps dominating the Brickyard 400. A late-race pit stop dropped him out of contention to win just like a few weeks later at Richmond when Benson lead several laps and was at the front of the field until the last pit stop dropped him out of a chance for his first victory.
In 1996 Benson finished one point out of tenth place at a time when it looked like few single car teams could enjoy that type of success.
"We had a good deal at Bahari' but at the time I thought it would be tough to ever win there consistently when you are facing the multi-car teams each weekend," Benson said. "I thought it would be best for my career if I went to Roush Racing. I thought they would have the resources to make the thing work."
Benson joined Roush and, despite missing the Daytona 500 in 1998 when another car spun and wrecked him in the qualifying race, his team change appeared to be the correct one. The next weekend at Rockingham he led laps and had one of the fastest cars before the engine blew up. A few weeks later at Las Vegas he finished fourth.
But Roush's internal problems and the logistics of maintaining a five-car team at different race shops eventually took their toll. Over the 1998 and 1999 seasons a parade of personnel changes, mechanical troubles and wrecks dropped Benson to 21st and 28th position in points.
"The situation just wasn't right for me. I have always said that if racing weren't fun I would go and do something else. Running the way we were and with all the problems I just had to get out. It was frustrating for them, frustrating for me, frustrating for everyone," Benson said.
Benson asked and received his release from Roush then began considering offers from other teams for the 2000 season. When Beverley's Tyler Jet team called, Benson realized a return to a Pontiac with a single car team in a close-knit atmosphere was just the type of team he was looking for.
"I listened to a lot of offers, but after what I had been through I knew what I wanted and what I didn't want and when I started talking with Tim I realized this is the place for me," Benson said. "Tim is a heck of a competitor and I think as the fans get to know him they are going to see that he is a really good guy."
Benson unites with crew chief James Ince. The 29 year-old is the youngest crew chief in the garage and met Benson when Ince was Kevin Lepage's crew chief at Roush Racing until May 1999 when he left Roush to join Tyler Jet.
"We went to the superspeedway test before Daytona and he was telling us stuff about the car that I had never heard from a driver before," said Ince who runs the 50 employee, 39,000-square-foot race shop across from Lowes Motor Speedway in Harrisburg, N.C.
"I can only make the car faster if that driver is giving me input. Johnny is pretty good at that. Both of us are motivated. I can relate to how he is feeling. People questioned us both last year and now this year we plan to show them a thing or two."
Benson and Ince lack no motivation. They know that success in 2000 will go a long way to showing NASCAR teams and fans that bigger isn't always better and that there is still a place in racing for the single car team and second chances.
"If this year turns out like I think it will I'm going to be here a very long time," said Benson. "Then those career questions will be easy."
Benson Pre-Season Quotes 2000 Season:
"I'm really looking forward to it. Last year was a really tough and frustrating year, which makes me look forward to this even more. I'm back in a Pontiac, and the guys at Tyler Jet have been building some great race cars, so I'm ready to go.
"I've never worked with James [Ince] before, but he was part of the Roush deal in the same building up there with Kevin Lepage. So we were close by, and did chat back-and-forth -maybe not as an everyday deal, but I think that was good. Then we've got some other people that were with Bahari' Racing when I ran so good, and that part has already clicked off pretty good. Plus, all the other guys are pulling the rope the same direction, and I think that's a big plus."
What Can This New Team Achieve? "It's probably too early to know what this team can achieve. The goal is to finish in the top 10 in points. That is the goal, and that's the goal we're going to try to achieve by doing the best we can. But, realistically, you don't know. You don't know until you get going. It's so competitive nowadays that even if you finish 15th, it wasn't like a terrible year. But, it's never good enough. It's just a situation where you need to dig down hard and get the cars the best you can.
"You know, I feel like this is actually one of the years we've been the best prepared. We've got cars ready for the first four races already, so it's actually looking pretty good, as far as the shop goes."
What Are Your Impressions Of The New Daytona Shock Rules? "This Pontiac Grand Prix drives great with the new rule. You're not sitting on stop blocks and bouncing around. The car is extremely driveable. All in all, I'm sure the rule is probably best. Like I said the car is real comfortable and easy to drive. It is a lot better than the last few years where the cars just beat the heck out of you. It's made the driver's life a lot easier."
Do You Have Something To Prove In 2000? "Of course I do. Everyone driver in this business does. Even when Earnhardt went some time without winning a race everyone was saying he had something to prove. He went out and won races last year and everyone eased up. In this business you are either going up or going down there is no standing still. I have a lot more input here and I think it is going to show on the track. This business, for all the machinery and high technology stuff, is still a people business. We plan to prove that this year."