Johnny Benson and his crew chief James Ince said they were going to do everything different Sunday at Pocono to break the ...
Johnny Benson and his crew chief James Ince said they were going to do everything different Sunday at Pocono to break the #10 Valvoline Pontiac team's recent string of bad luck. No stone would be left unturned in their effort to do everything different.
Ince cancelled the pre-race team meeting. Benson went to the driver meeting earlier than normal and the entire team wouldn't allow the number 13 to appear as a part number on any component of the race car. Ince even allowed the normally taboo victory lane hats into the team's pit before the race started.
"We've tried everything else different today so let's see if the results are different," Ince said on the team radio before the green flag fell. "Something has to change our luck."
Little did he know how right he would be after 500 miles and a dramatic ending on the 2.5-mile Pennsylvania triangle.
The reason for the behavioral change was the team's recent spate of bad luck despite often being one of the fastest cars on the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit. Ever since Charlotte when Benson ran out of gas gambling for a win, misfortune has ruined many top finishes.
At Dover Benson hit an errant tire from another team ruining a second-place run. He was caught in another car's wreck at the first Pocono then was black-flagged for speeding while running in the top three at Sears Point. Benson held the lead in the closing laps at Daytona before he was shuffled out of the draft and a top-three finish at Chicago ended in engine failure. Then tire problems at New Hampshire last week ruined what appeared to be a sure top-ten finish.
It was time for a change.
"We just have to do something different to break our streak of bad luck," Benson said. "We seem to run really well then all of a sudden something happens. We just need something to turn our luck."
Pocono, the team hoped, would be that turning point when new and different things would occur. Unfortunately it did at the beginning of the race -- Benson was slow. He fell from his ninth-place starting spot all the way back to about 15th before clawing his way to seventh place in the first forty laps. Under long green flag run he struggled with a car that wouldn't turn as well as he liked and dropped to ninth place.
The day seemed like most with the Valvoline Pontiac running well and everyone hoping nothing would go wrong. But it did.
"I don't know what is happening but this car is so loose it wants to hit the wall," Benson reported over the team radio during the middle portion of the 200-lap race. "I don't understand this. It's a handful. I'm just frustrated."
Benson fell through the field dropping as far down as 25th place. Ince tried a host of remedies with chassis changes and air adjustments in the tires but the race seemed doomed to end with Benson and company getting, but this time deserving, a bad finish. The team even ripped off the tape in front of the brake ducts because Benson reported he had no brakes.
"Don't any hang your heads," Ince warned the team over the radio. "We still have a long time to work on this and make this car right."
Ince brought Benson in early with 60 laps to go in order to make more chassis changes to help his struggling driver. But that move backfired when Kyle Petty stalled on the track bringing out the yellow and leaving Benson a lap down.
On the restart, Benson managed to get in front of the leader Jeff Gordon as a multicar wreck in turn three brought out another yellow. Benson regained his lap and went to the tail end of the field still not in the top 20.
With 45 laps to go, Ince brought Benson in to top-off the fuel just on the slight chance they might decide to roll the dice and turn the race into a fuel mileage run. The consensus in the garage was that most teams needed to pit after 36 green-flag laps, some could go as much as 40 and anybody trying to go 45 needed a good number of caution laps.
A quick caution after the field ran a lap or two under green, brought everyone back to pit road - except Benson. Ince and Benson decided it was time to make luck work their way for a change.
"We needed something to happen so it was time to make something happen," Ince said as he told his driver to stay out, start drafting, and conserve as much fuel as possible. He was going to need that and a lot of luck to make it to the end.
Benson led the field to the restart and held the lead for seven laps before he and Dale Earnhardt Jr. staged a stirring duel as the pair swapped the lead in the three high-speed turns. Earnhardt Jr. grabbed the top spot and passed Benson as did eventual race winner Bobby Labonte and third place finisher Tony Stewart. Benson's car was working as well as it had early in the race but wasn' t quite quick enough to defend his position from those cars as well as the encroaching Bill Elliott who was hunting Benson for fourth.
More ominous than Awesome Bill was the dwindling supply of fuel on the Valvoline Pontiac.
"Just make sure to wiggle that thing around and use fourth gear," Ince warned Benson. "Draft when you can. It's awfully close."
Others on pit road doubted he could make it. But he kept out on the track not reporting even the slightest sputter of the engine.
When the white flag fell Benson had Elliott nipping at his heels and a fuel tank dry. But the Valvoline Pontiac chugged all the way to turn four where it sputtered a few hundred yards before the start finish line and finally ran out of gas. Although Elliott slipped by, Benson managed to cost across the line in fifth.
He couldn't even make it to turn one before the Valvoline Pontiac came to rest at the end of pit road. The crew pushed the car to NASCAR's cordoned off area for top five finishers.
"Man, that was close," laughed Benson as he climbed from the car. "I ran out of gas coming off four. I guess we were kind of lucky for a change."
It was a bit more than luck. It had a dash of good strategy, perseverance on working on an ill-handling car and good fuel mileage from the Hendrick engine mixed in. But whether the main ingredient was luck or not, the Valvoline team isn't going to give back it's fifth place finish on a day when it might not have been one of the top cars in the race.
"Heck yes we'll take this," said Benson who remains tenth in points. "I hope we are just as lucky next week at Indianapolis."
It was Benson's eighth top-10 finish this season. He tied his best finish at Pocono, recorded in July 1996.