Rain couldn't dampen the NASCAR Winston Cup Dodge parade at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday nor could it keep Johnny Benson's ...
Rain couldn't dampen the NASCAR Winston Cup Dodge parade at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday nor could it keep Johnny Benson's #10 Valvoline Pontiac from recording its third consecutive top-five finish on ovals.
Benson moved into fifth place passing Dave Blaney just a few laps before rain ended Sunday's race 160 laps into the 200-lap event. Benson was the best of the General Motors cars in a race that saw Dodge's Sterling Marlin win for the manufacturer for the first time since Neil Bonnett won at Ontario Speedway in Ontario CA. on November 20,1977.
Benson was pleased with Sunday's performance that resulted in his 10th top-10 finish in 2001 and tied his best finish in 12 races at Michigan. His James Ince-led team overcame a mid-season dry spell the team attributes to bad luck and adjusting to NASCAR's rule changes.
"Everybody on this race team is working extremely hard," said Benson who finished fifth at Pocono and third at Indy. "They've been putting great race cars under me. The last couple of weeks we've been good, but even before that, we weren't really struggling. We just had some bad luck and were trying to figure out how to get around the bump stops and all that."
Marlin, who averaged 140.513 mph grabbed the lead with 56 laps remaining in the scheduled distance and drove away to a half-second margin over pole winner Ricky Craven when the day's third caution, for rain, was displayed at lap 156. After the rain continued and the race was called. Craven finished second followed by Bill Elliott, Matt Kenseth and Benson. Benson started 22nd and struggle in the early going with a car that wouldn't turn. After the first pit stop the car then wanted to turn too much. After a lengthy rain delay at the 100-lap mark, Benson return to action with a car that handled much better.
"I was pretty happy then," Benson said. "We were good and I knew we would get a good finish if everything went well." Benson was moving up the scoring pylon when the rains came finally ending the race.
Sunday's race was the second oval-track race since NASCAR allowed the Dodge Intrepids a two-inch extension on the front air dams to give them better downforce on the noses of their cars. The results showed. In June Dodge posted three top-10 finishes: Sterling Marlin (third), Dave Blaney (eighth) and Bill Elliott (ninth). In their return to Michigan on Sunday, Dodge scored two top-five finishes and four top-10s: Sterling Marlin (first), Bill Elliott (third), Dave Blaney (sixth) and Casey Atwood (10th).
Benson and Ince joined a chorus of drivers and crew chiefs who said it is time for NASCAR to help Pontiac.
"I'm real happy, but we're having to work way too hard to stay with the Dodges on this type of racetrack. We had a so-so car. I drove my hind end off and still couldn't catch them. They were walking away two or three tenths a lap. We tried hard. This Valvoline Pontiac was awesome, but we still couldn't stay with them."
Ince pointed out that Benson, a Michigan native, was the only Pontiac on the lead lap.
"It's a situation where it's OK for us to have to work hard, but we're having to working way too hard to get what we're getting right now. There is no doubt that we're at a deficit. Maybe we haven't done a good enough job on our part to give NASCAR an option to help us out. Maybe that is something that we need to go work on. But the reality of it is, for us to have to work as hard as we're working we should be winning races. We shouldn't be running in the top five. We were the only Pontiac on the lead lap and there are good Pontiac teams in this garage. It just doesn't make sense right now. We're happy. It was a good day for us. I would have almost liked to have seen it go green the rest of the way. But like I said, it's terrible when you've got a better race team than other people have got and you're still going to run fifth with them."
Benson and Ince were kind compared to others.
"They (NASCAR) have given Dodge everything but the checkered flag to get them to the checkered flag and they got that today," said Bobby Labonte's crew chief Jimmy Makar. "They (Dodge) were pretty classy, if you look at all of them. They all ran well."
While the Ford- Chevrolet- Dodge-Pontiac debate is sure to rage the rest of the 2001 season so will the points race. Although Jeff Gordon extended his lead to almost 300 points over Ricky Rudd, the battle for the top five grows closer. Benson is now ninth but sits less than 100 points out of fifth.
"We think we can get there but it's going to take good luck and our car to keep running like it has," Benson said. "Our goal is top six, but we will certainly take the top five."
Benson and his Valvoline team return to action Saturday night in Bristol, Tenn.