There were few observers in the Winston Cup garage who doubted Dale Earnhardt Jr. would win Saturday's 400-mile NASCAR race at Daytona International Speedway. The question is who would he have to beat. The answer was Johnny Benson in the ...
There were few observers in the Winston Cup garage who doubted Dale Earnhardt Jr. would win Saturday's 400-mile NASCAR race at Daytona International Speedway.
The question is who would he have to beat.
The answer was Johnny Benson in the #10 Valvoline Pontiac.
Earnhardt Jr. used four new tires and a huge speed advantage to pass Benson in the closing laps. Benson fought valiantly to hang on, but others used the Earnhardt draft to shuffle him back to 13th place.
"There wasn't much we could do about that," Benson said after the race. "We were doing everything we could to hang on to first. But, (Earnhardt Jr.) had such an advantage on all of us that we were just racing for second."
Benson employed his normal restrictor plate race strategy in the early going when he dropped to the rear of the field along with Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart to bide their time waiting for the end of the race.
The 43 drivers raced two and three abreast as the field spread out but Benson was in no rush to get to the front of the pack.
"We knew we could get to the front," Benson said. "We were running pretty hard but I didn't want to get caught in anyone else's mess."
Crew Chief James Ince brought Benson in midway through the race a lap or two before the pack came to pit road. When the pit sequence ended, Benson had climbed to mid pack where he remained until the closing laps of the race.
With about 20 laps to go Benson made his final stop of the night this time taking two tires during green flag racing. Again, it was a few laps before the others ^Ö a move that proved to be the best strategy of the night. A few laps later, before the others could pit, a multi-car melee occurred in the fourth turn as the pack slowed to enter pit road.
The wreck closed pit road and when it reopened the leaders were forced to pit. Benson remained on the track and moved into first place. When the restart came Benson knew he was on older tires, knew his car was fast but maybe not as fast as others and he knew he wanted his first victory in the worst way.
"Johnny make sure you get a good restart and don't you dare allow a lap car to hold you up. Make them pass you on the outside."
Benson wasn't about to allow that to happen. He also knew Earnhardt Jr. lurked about seventh in line.
"I'm going to drive the wheels off the car and let's just see what will happen," he told the team over the radio.
As the green flag waved Benson held the field off and raced down the backstretch in the lead. A lap later Jeff Gordon blew his engine bringing out the yellow once again.
This time it would be a single file restart with Benson leading Dave Blaney and teammate Kenny Schrader. Earnhardt Jr. was still the car to beat.
Benson brought the field to the green and led down the backstretch again with just six laps remaining. But that's Earnhardt used his speed advantage and new tires to start picking off cars and blazing up to the front. With four laps to go in turn four Earnhardt blew by Benson on the outside bringing the draft with him.
Benson was shuffled to the back and came across the finish line in 13th. Saturday's race marked NASCAR's return to Daytona where Dale Earnhardt was killed in February. Dale Jr. led 116 of the 160 laps and never was passed on the track. Michael Waltrip, winner of the Daytona 500, was second (Junior was second to Waltrip in February), with Elliott Sadler finishing third. Ward Burton was fourth and Bobby Labonte fifth.
Benson was originally shown in 14th but Tony Stewart was moved back from sixth to 26th at the end of the lead lap for failing to report to the pits after being black-flagged with four laps to go. Stewart's car passed below the yellow line between the short chute coming off Turn 4 of the 2.5-mile trioval and the start/finish line while battling for second and third with Benson.
Ince explained the incident:
"Nothing happened, other than the fact that he (Stewart) tried to pass down through the infield," Ince said. "It was almost pretty big there at the end with him. There is a gas pedal on the right and a brake in the middle. It was pretty clear in the drivers' meeting where the yellow line was. We didn't tell him to go below it."
Benson reflected on the race in which in led 10 laps - the third most.
"All in all it wasn't a bad finish," he said. "There wasn't anyone who was going to compete with Dale Jr. tonight. But his victory probably means more to him than any of us can imagine right now so I really don't feel too bad about him getting by us. That's kind of cool and after all that he has been through I congratulate him."
Benson dropped to 8th in the 2001 Winston Cup point standings and returns to action at the new racetrack in Chicago this weekend.
Additional Benson Quotes Courtesy of Pontiac:
"It was a good run for us. The Pontiacs are at such a disadvantage here. The '8' car went by us like we were standing still, but he went by everybody. You don't go by yourself on the outside and make that kind of time up. But it's OK. It was good that Junior won. I know he wanted to win and he got it done. We just did what we could and tried to hang on, but the minute he went up there it about spun me out and then everybody got underneath me. I just had to hang in the middle."
(DID YOU SEE IT COMING?) "I saw it coming from eight car lengths back. It was pretty easy to see. But it's cool. I'm glad that he won."
(ANY SATISFACTION IN ANOTHER GOOD RUN AT DAYTONA?) "Oh yeah. We always have a great race car when we come to the super speedways. It's just always at the end that all the other makes just blow right by us."
Before Saturday's race Valvoline and Daytona International Speedway have signed a multi-year agreement in which Valvoline will become the official motor oil for the Daytona USA, the Speedway and all of its events including the Daytona 500.