Only a week after 7-time champion Dale Earnhardt lost his life in a last lap crash at Daytona and just days after a memorial service celebrating the life of the sport's greatest driver, the mood in the garage leading up to the second race of the...
Only a week after 7-time champion Dale Earnhardt lost his life in a last lap crash at Daytona and just days after a memorial service celebrating the life of the sport's greatest driver, the mood in the garage leading up to the second race of the season at North Carolina Speedway was nothing less than somber. All crew members donned black #3 hats and each of the 43 cars carried a special sticker honoring "The Big E" as fans brought flowers and banners commemorating the fallen hero.
Adding to the gloom were the storm clouds that let loose 52 laps into Sunday 's race postponing the event and forcing everyone to return on Monday for the completion of the 392-lap race in the sand hills near Rockingham in eastern North Carolina.
But just when it seemed one of the toughest weeks in the sport's history would never end, the sun popped up over the horizon Monday morning and the clouds cleared making for a beautiful day at Rockingham. And for a few hours the sport seemed to return to normal as the stands filled, the motors fired, and close side-by-side racing washed away a little of the tragedy.
Johnny Benson and his #10 Valvoline Pontiac teammates were one of those teams that thrilled the 100,000 fans who managed to skip work or school and show up for a Monday morning race. Benson waged a furious battle with the likes of Bobby Labonte, Tony Stewart, and Dale Jarrett throughout the 400-mile event as he raced in the top-10 all day once climbing as high as third and never dropping below tenth.
As the checkered flag unfurled, Benson drove his Valvoline Pontiac to a career-best sixth-place finish at "The Rock."
"That wasn't too bad," understated Benson seconds after climbing from the Valvoline car. "I thought we were going to be good to go there at the end. I don't know if we could have won today, but I think we had a good shot for a top three finish. But that last set of tires got just a little tight and as they wore down they got tighter and tighter and I fell back."
The Valvoline team took special notice of Monday's performance. Both Benson and his Crew Chief James Ince see it as an omen for things to come later in the season.
"Rockingham is really the first race of the season to us," said Benson who moved to 13th in the 2001 driver point standings. "Yes, Daytona is where the season really kicks off, but there are a lot more tracks on the circuit like Rockingham and if you can run good here then you know you are in for a pretty good year. I'm looking forward to 2001. I thought that going through the winter. I thought that at the last race of 2000 and I still feel that way today."
Benson continues to improve at Rockingham. He earned his career best finish at Rockingham in each of the last three races. Last February he finished 14th then 11th in October.
"I think we're learning," Ince said. "This is the first opportunity we've had to come back to these places for a second year so we've regrouped and kind of have our ducks in a row. I look for a better performances everywhere we go this season."
Benson qualified eighth on Saturday and began Monday's lap 56 restart in the same position. The track's abrasive surface forced drivers to pay special attention to conserving tires. Lap times were more than a second slower just 20 laps into a green flag run.
Benson maintained his position for the first 200 laps of the race but put on a charge around lap 203 through the aid of a 16-second pit stop. In that pit stop cycle he entered the pits ninth and during the sequencing raced up to fifth. By lap 221 he passed Ricky Rudd to grab fourth position.
He dropped to fifth after pit stops for Mike Skinner's spin but once again charged up to fourth by passing Tony Stewart. Benson reported the car wouldn 't turn as well as he liked.
"Just make sure you keep air on the nose of the car," Ince reminded Benson. The air enables the front end to stick better in the corner so Benson can take advantage of his ability to drive lower through the corner than his competitors.
Benson took Ince's advice and by lap 273 he passed Bobby Labonte to grab third spot. While Benson was moving up on the track, Ince told the Motor Racing Network his car was prepared for long runs not quick sprints.
"We came here and tested last month and we didn't care about qualifying as much as we did making sure this would race well," Ince told the radio audience.
At lap 302 a caution flag flew forcing everyone to pit road. Benson entered third and came out sixth. Twenty laps later he passed Dale Jarrett for fifth then Stewart for fourth but concerns about fuel mileage and a worsening handling condition made life difficult for the Valvoline team.
In the final laps Benson valiantly tried but failed to hold off Stewart and Ricky Craven. As the checkered flag flew, Benson nipped Rusty Wallace at the finish line for sixth place.
"Like I said I wish we could have been better at the end," Benson said. "But the last set of tires just didn't agree with our car. But, we still have a lot to be positive about."
While Benson reflected on his race, he admitted that today might be the only day of the season when he was glad to see a fellow competitor take the checkered flag. Steve Park -- driving for the team owned by Earnhardt -- dominated the race and won a wild last lap battle with Labonte to take a very emotional victory in front of the raucous crowd that stood and cheered for minutes after the race.
Benson couldn't help but imagine what Earnhardt was doing on this sunny North Carolina day that saw NASCAR racing at its best.
"I imagine Dale was probably a little sad he's not racing and not here today with us. But by the same token, he is in a better place and he had the best seat in the house to see one of his cars win. I think its good that Steve could win for those guys today. Today was a good day for everyone."
Benson and his Valvoline teammates return to action Sunday in Las Vegas.