Benson walks away from Talladega feeling lucky

#10 Valvoline Pontiac driver Johnny Benson left Talladega Superspeedway feeling like a pretty lucky man.

He wasn't so fortunate to miss the big wreck on lap 164 that involved 24 cars. Nor did he feel real lucky for his 39th-place finish after running pretty well all afternoon on the high-speed trioval.

Benson felt lucky because of some quick work by his crewmembers as well as crewmembers on other NASCAR teams who pulled him from a burning Valvoline Pontiac on pit road as flames spread over the car and inside the driver cockpit.

"That was pretty scary," Benson said after a trip to the infield car center. "That's the first time in my career I've ever had a fire like that. I'm fine and I didn't get burned but I got very hot in the car. I inhaled some of the smoke and fire extinguisher stuff so they took me to the hospital for a while."

Benson said fire is a driver's worst nightmare.

"There's nothing worse. I'd rather hit the wall harder than heck compared to catching on fire. Fire is the worst."

Rescue workers doused Benson with cold water and wet towels after he was pulled from the car. After a few minutes in the care center he was released to go back home to North Carolina.

Until the accident, Benson was enjoying a pretty good day. He started 7th and then moved to fourth in the early going. For the rest of the race Benson moved up and down the scoring pylon using the draft to climb as high as tenth and fell as far back as 30th.

"I think we had a pretty good car today," Benson said. "If we could have ever got into clean air I think we would have been really good but it was just a matter of who was going to help who out there. When you got help you were pretty good, when you didn't you'd go to the back of the pack."

Benson was running midpack as the laps began to wind down and making his move to the front. With 16 laps to go several cars ahead of Benson got together in turn two and cars began crashing and spinning. Benson hit another car while enduring a hit from behind.

When he finally came to a rest on the backstretch he refired the engine.

Benson drove the damaged Valvoline Pontiac around to the pits where the crew changed two tires and sent him back on the track just ahead of the pace car. The plan was to bring him in for two more tires. As he was circling the track the battery housed in the car just behind the left rear tire caught fire. The flames rapidly spread and by the time he was in the middle of pit road the fire had erupted over the car.

Crewmembers from Kenny Schrader's #36 team as well as others on pit road and Talladega safety crews helped pull Benson from the burning car. The damage from the car along with Benson's treatment forced the Valvoline team to retire from the race.

"Yeah, I want to thank all those guys," Benson said after the race. "I hate to think what would have happened if they weren't there. I was having some trouble getting out but they risked getting burned to save me. I owe them a lunch I think."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won Sunday's race and was followed across the finish line by Michael Waltrip.

-tv-