Johnny Benson pre-season interview

Johnny Benson and his ...

Johnny Benson and his #10 Valvoline Pontiac teammates begin their 2002 testing schedule on Jan. 13, 14 & 15 at Daytona International Speedway. Benson hopes the 2002 season will see him improve on his 11th place finish in the points, a career-best 6 top-five finishes and lead even more than the 101 laps he led in the 2001 season.

Benson On Pre-Season Testing:

"A driver doesn't learn much during those tests. I think Daytona testing is all about getting the car fast not the driver. As a driver you get the car adjusted so you are comfortable. By that I mean you get the seat, the mirror, the steering wheel all fitted to your liking, but Superspeedway testing is basically about shaking down your car to see where you are at for Speedweeks.

"I think we are supposed to draft on the third day at Daytona. As long as everyone does it then I think it will be a great thing. It will help NASCAR see how the draft works with the new rules. It will give us an even better indication of where we are going into Speedweeks. They have been moving the rules around and changing them a lot so drafting at the test will help us out a bunch.

"At these tests before, you could never get everyone together to do any drafting. It seems like we spend so much time working on qualifying and doing one or two lap runs. Before it seemed like we spent 95 percent of our time working on qualifying and about 5 percent on the race. We are sitting good enough points that we can afford to work more on race setup. Personally, I wish we would work all on race setup. But, everyone emphasizes qualifying because Daytona isn't a race you want to miss. I mean you don't ever want to miss a race but especially not Daytona."

2001 Season:

"No I wasn't totally pleased. We didn't reach our goals. We wanted to win a race and we wanted to finish in the top six in points, and we didn't achieve that. We know those were lofty but you have to aim high. It wasn't from a lack of hard work. We worked hard all year, but we broke six or seven engines and that really hurt us. We had a decent season. To finish 11th isn't bad and we had three third place finishes and there aren't a lot of teams that can say that. We're just going to keep working hard. And, man, I'm looking forward to the new season. This is a really good group of guys and we are starting to mature and become a really good team."

2002 Season:

"We have about the same goals as we had last year. I think we can finish in the top six and we'd like to win a race. Both of those aren't too far out of our reach. We are getting better and better each year and I expect that to continue in 2002. There are some guys who have won a race before we have but there are very few teams who run as well as we do week in and week out and in the long run that is going to help our program more than anything else."

Predictions For 2002 Season:

"I think it will be a pretty good year for the fans. We had a lot of controversy last season and I think that is all behind us. That's normal for a sport growing as ours. I think this season you will see more focus on what's going on the racetrack. I think some great finishes, a close points battle, and drama like that are going to make for a great season. If we can get the focus back on what is happening on the track then we are going to be pretty entertaining for all the race fans."

Anticipating A Victory:

"I like the attention we're getting from the fans and media about us getting our first win. That means they are noticing that we are running good each race and that is great. You always like being complimented. I can't wait until I don 't have to answer questions about when we are going to win, but that will come. I'm glad people take an interest in our team. We think we made a lot of fans as we overcame all the adversity that we had to overcome. As long as we keep running as well as we are, a win will take care of itself.

"I'm not frustrated by not having that win yet and I'm not frustrated because we're close. I'm happy that we're close, that we're having these opportunities to maybe win one of these races. If you're running 10th, 15th, 20th or 25th, that's when I get frustrated. If you're running in the top 10 or in the top five, one of these days we're going to get it done, so we're not frustrated with finishing second although the end goal is to be first. I'd rather be in that scenario than in the other, as far as being at the back. I'd be more frustrated at the back than I am running in the top ten."

Celebrating First Victory:

"We're not worried about that, yet. We'll figure it out if we win one. You don't try to plan for a party, you've got to win first and then make a party. That's how we're working on it."

Is Corporate Ownership Like Valvoline's The Wave Of The Future?

"I don't know if it is the wave of the future. It's got to be right for the owner to do that. It's got to be right for the team to do that. In our case, it was perfect for Valvoline to become our sponsor, but also a co-owner of the race team. That's what they wanted out of the deal and that's what we needed. For us, it's a good deal. It may not be for the next guy, but it is for Valvoline and our race team."

Valvoline Playing An Ownership Role With Team:

"We were in a situation in 2000 where we didn't have a sponsor, we were out of money and we were pretty much shut down and out of business. MB2 came along and purchased half of the race team and Valvoline purchased the other half. Aaron's came on board and let us finish out the year, which was a great thing. Valvoline owning us is a totally different situation for them and us. It allows Valvoline to go ahead and do its own marketing. They can see what they want. When we bang on the door and we want more money, they can look and say, 'OK, I can see where we need that,' and not have such a big issue. This way the sponsor isn't wondering where the money is going. They've got a pretty good idea. I think for James and the guys it's got to be a pretty good situation for them, too."

Has Valvoline Allowed You To Concentrate More On Racing?

"Valvoline has allowed us to do it to do more research and more development stuff in other areas that we couldn't do in the past. That's real important to having a good race team and then turning it into a great race team. That is what having a sponsor like Valvoline is enabling us to do. It let's us work in these areas that we need to get stronger in and be better at, and be able to spend money in these areas to improve them."

Safety:

"That's a tough question. I think NASCAR's safety effort is getting better. What they are doing isn't easy. There are areas that being looked at that need to be looked at and I think everybody is doing what they can. But they don't want to just all of a sudden change things. If we could find somebody that knows and can evaluate everything that is going on and can give us a direction today, we'd fix it tomorrow. But the problem is they can't give us that answer yet, so we're looking at a lot of different things. As soon as somebody comes up and says, 'This is the deal and this is going to make a difference,' then that's what we need to do."

Restrictor Plate Racing

"Our current rules (in restrictor plate races) were put in place because we basically didn't like some of the other rules. Bobby Allison's wreck was pretty scary and the last thing we want is for cars to do what his did at Talladega. The plate was brought as a too produce great racing for the people in the stands while slowing the cars. But, we felt like the packs were just a little bit too tight. One mistake and the whole field was wrecking. Sure, we want great racing. We want the fans to see great racing. But at times, these rules were jeopardizing equipment and risking injury; so it was just time to evaluate the whole system. I think NASCAR is really listening to the drivers and teams now and in time we will come up with something to satisfy all of the concerns. But, you've got to respect the organization for trying to get our side of the story -- from where we sit in the cars and what we see. As drivers, we're certainly conscious of what the fans want to see. We just need to find some kind of happy medium."

Strategy In Plate Races?

"You can't strategize. You just have to make sure that you're in the right place at the right time, and hope that you're in the right place if something happens. Myself, I don't want to be halfway back in the field in the middle row because if something happens, you're in it. It's almost guaranteed that you're going to be in it - 99.8 percent of the time when a wreck happens and you're in the middle of the field in the middle row, you're going to have some damage to the race car. I try not to think about plate racing strategy until the race because the race itself is going to wear you out. I try not to get all worked up for the fact that you know that it's going to be a stressful day going into the deal. When it comes down to it, you need to put yourself in a position at the end of the race to have legitimate shot of winning the race. If you're in a wreck with 25 to 40 [laps] to go, there is not a whole lot you can do about that because you've got to get yourself in that position. But the first 160 laps you might as well hang out somewhere where there is not going to be problems. You better either be leading it or running last - however you want to play it. Sure, leading is the best place to be. If you're in the top four or five, you're fairly confident that you can run with those guys up there and not have a huge problem. But when you start to get to 10th, man, I would just as soon be at the back. The problem is that you can wreck trying to get out of there to try to get to the back. You just have to find where you're comfortable. If you're comfortable, then you're OK. But if you feel like you're in somewhere that you don't really want to be, then you've got to do something to get yourself out of there. The problem is it may take you 20 laps to get out of there, so it's a tough deal. A lot can happen in 20 laps - heck, a lot can happen in a half a second."

Do Drivers Dread Superspeedways?

"I don't know; it is hard to say. Is it an uncomfortable feeling? Yeah it is. Going three or four wide at a race like that for three hours makes it, at times, extremely uncomfortable. At other times it's OK. If you are two-wide or single file then it is easy just to cruise around there. I don't think drivers get up on the morning of the race and dread racing. I don't think you can have that type of mindset. You have to have the mindset that we are going to get through this race safely and see how it all plays out. I don't think any of us get up in the morning and say 'Man I wish this race were done now.' But, there is always concern when you run a race like Talladega."

Would You Buy A Ticket?

"Absolutely, the shows NASCAR puts on there are unbelievable. I've seen this race from behind the steering wheel. I can't imagine what it looks like from the stands. I mean we had 49 lead changes last year. And someone told me the other day the victory margin is less than a second in our last 20 races at Talladega. That's incredible."

How Does Pontiac Compare To Other Manufacturers?

"There are some cars out there that are aerodynamically pretty good. I'm not saying that we're terrible, but we're not where they are. It makes it difficult because you know you don't have the front downforce and then you've got to loosen the thing up the car so bad that once you get in open air or get somebody behind you, you can't drive the thing. It's a difficult deal, but hopefully in time, they'll straighten it out and we'll be on the same playing field as the other manufacturers. I'm not saying that we don't want to work hard, by any means. But, it seems like we've got to work twice as hard to even be able to compete with them. We've got a very good race team and that's the reason that we're able to pull off great finishes sometimes, even at places where we're at a disadvantage. But, I'd sure love to take that hard work and then apply it to the same aero situation they've got. Life would be a lot better for us in here then."

James Ince:

"Me and James Ince communicate really well. We both worked on race cars and we both raced them at a time when our careers started. He understands what a race car needs and what it wants. I think what really works for me is that we both understand a race car but he is able to watch a car on the track and see what the attitude of the car is and know what I like in a race car. He is able to pick that up in a fairly quick manner. That helps us as a race team -- that we can pick things up quickly. I like his attitude toward racing and his approach. He gets stuff done. He demands 110 percent out of you and that's what he expects to give back. That has really helped me as a driver as far as him getting things done and being organized. He will come right out and tell you where he stands and how he feels and he tries to get things done and that's a plus for myself.

"The best thing I ever did was move to this race team. It's been great working with James Ince. I love his philosophy and his 'let's go out and win some races' attitude. If I was going to own a race team, that is something that I'd want. I'd want that kind of person that wants to go out there and do whatever it takes to win races and eventually win a championship. That's what it's all about. I've been in different situations where that really wasn't the attitude and that makes life miserable. For the guys in our race shop to have the attitude that they have is great. It's something that I hope stays there for quite a long time."

One-Day Shows:

"If we could do all of our races in one day throughout the year that would be great. But I don't think that will happen. As far as one-day show, I'm all for them. It's the crew guys who bear the biggest burden of our schedule. They are the ones who are away from their families and anything we can do to help their lives out is fine with me."

Points Racing:

"In some cases, late in the year, you can get to where you are points racing, but I think that is only with the top two or three guys in points. Most of the time we don't even think of points. I'm sure we will just want to keep the same goals we have had and that's to win a race. Sure we want to end the year high up in points but we are still going to take chances to win a race. Look at last week."

Driver's Duties When It Comes To Race Strategy:

"My job is to tell the crew chief if the car was better with four tires, two tires, or how effective were the handling adjustments we made. He takes that information and uses it in his decision on what we will do. He is looking at the lap times, the tire sheets, listening to what other teams are doing plus a whole lot of other stuff. There are a lot of things that go into the crew chief 's decision but he probably listens to the driver's input as much as anything else."

Goodyear Tires:

"Before it was always four tires or two tires and most of the time it was four tires. Last year it seemed like with the tires Goodyear has brought to the track you aren't automatically going to head for the pits. Some guys can take no tires. Sterling Marlin did that at Indy and finished second. Jeff Gordon did two tires and won and I did two tires and finished third. A lot of guys ahead of us took four and couldn't make it back to the front. Your strategy sometimes just boils down to what the driver is going to be comfortable with and whether he thinks he can make it back to the front if he takes four tires. It can be just a guessing game.

"The tire Goodyear is bringing to the track is a little bit better than what they brought last year. It's a little more consistent with what we have had in the past. It's not quite there for everything yet. Air pressure seems to make changes to the car consistently. It being a harder tire is also making for better races. In the past with the softer tires you knew you were going to pit if the yellow came out. Now, the tires are pretty good so it gives you that option of staying out on the track and gaining track position. We did that at Texas and it almost got us the win. That's because of the tires this year. It think it makes our races a lot more entertaining."

Never Giving Up During A Race:

"With all the stuff that happens at the end of the race you never give up. I know everyone always says that but it is really true this year. NASCAR is so competitive that if you are on the lead lap, you could be OK by the end of the race. You work on your car to get it better and better and spend the first two-thirds of the race preparing for the end. Obviously, you would like to lead every lap and win the race, but if you aren't there your goal is to improve so that when the end comes you can get to the front. In our last two races we have top five finishes, but I don't think we were in the top 10 for most of the day. Nowadays it's all about the end. That's when it counts the most."

Why Drivers Are Good At Particular Tracks:

"I think in qualifying you have to hang it out at all tracks and Las Vegas is no different. At Vegas you have to be smooth and you have to hit your spots just right. Most importantly you have to have a lot of confidence in what that race car is going to do. Last year I trusted the car and we really picked up in qualifying and ended up eighth. I hope it is a bit easier this year with just a little bit better result."

Road Courses:

"They are kind of fun. I'm glad we only have to do two a year. Now if they had a schedule with a lot more road courses then I might go find some other thing to do. You get better the more you run but by the same token everyone else does too. That keeps the playing field fairly equal. You run the best you can and you have to stay on the track. If you stay on the track, by the end of the day you should be in pretty good shape. You have to have good brakes, a good race car and a good engine like every other week. I think I'm a little bit harder on brakes than your standard road race guy. If I can keep brakes on my Valvoline Pontiac I think I will have an OK day. Before the race I tell myself that I have to get a good rhythm. That's a huge key. You are running the car side-to-side and these cars don't like that. They aren't built to do that. When you sit down to design a road course car, a Winston Cup car isn't what you would build. You would build something totally different. You just have to be smooth, consistent, get a good rhythm and work with it."

Which Is More Important The Engine Or Chassis?

"Well, it doesn't matter how good the handling of a car is when the engine blows up and it doesn't matter how much horsepower you have if you can't get the car turned in the corner. It's always a struggle between the engine guys and the chassis guys on a race team. The chassis guys blame the engine guys if the car is slow and the engine guys blame the chassis guys. We try not to do that on race teams but that is human nature. One side can't succeed without the other."

Which Tracks Are The Most Challenging?

"All of them are challenging. Probably, as far as challenging for a driver, I think the flat slippery tracks are extremely challenging, but those are the tracks that I like. So that might not be answering your question correctly. Places like Bristol are extremely hard and running the road courses are extremely hard because we only race them twice a year. That's a hard question to answer. I feel the most challenging tracks are the flatter tracks but we usually do very well on those tracks."

Are you Superstitious?

"I don't have any superstitions, whether I'm running good or running bad. I don't worry about that. I don't think about that. As long as they don't put green on the car, I'm good to go."

Short Tracks:

"It's always great to get back to racing some short-track races. That's where all of us grew up, so it's always kind of cool to go back and do those."

What Do You Do If You Have To Go To The Bathroom During A Race:

"That might be the question I get asked the most. I tell people I hold it and hold it and hold it. I remember at Texas, I finished third, but the first thing I did was run to the restroom. I made MRN and the television folks wait while I was in there. You always make sure you go before the race. If you forget then it can be a pretty long afternoon."

What Do You Do When You Aren't Racing?

"Well, when we aren't at the track we might be doing appearances for Valvoline, or working at the shop either answering fan mail or talking with the crew. When I'm free I like to play with the kids or play on the lake. I have a 1940 sedan we like to ride around in, and I have a motorcycle. We might go see a movie or go over and listen to music. Anything that gets me a way and let's me relax is fine with me."

Is There Pressure Being A Driver?

"There is pressure if you allow it. But the way I look at it, if it isn't fun then I'll go do something else. I love what I do and hope I get to keep doing it for years. Sure, the demands can be overwhelming at times, but as a driver you have to learn to allocate your time. Sometimes you just have to get away. But, all in all this is the stuff most people dream of so I consider myself very lucky."

-valvoline/db-

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About this article
Series Monster Energy NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Sterling Marlin , Johnny Benson , Bobby Allison