There were anxious faces in the Winston Cup garage Sunday morning as drivers and teams prepared for 500 miles on the 2.66-mile high banks of Talladega Superspeedway. The restrictor plate coupled with Talladega's 185 mph speeds and close-quarter ...
There were anxious faces in the Winston Cup garage Sunday morning as drivers and teams prepared for 500 miles on the 2.66-mile high banks of Talladega Superspeedway. The restrictor plate coupled with Talladega's 185 mph speeds and close-quarter racing always make fans and competitors nervous, but Sunday seemed more tension filled than ever before.
To combat what many said would be the inevitable Talladega wreck, race teams came to Alabama this week with special race strategies. Johnny Benson's #10 Valvoline Pontiac team knew its strategy before the weekend.
They knew their Pontiac could go near the front any time it desired.
"We are going to ride in the back until it's time to go racing then we are going to race for the win," said Crew Chief James Ince describing his race strategy. "It's not a matter of not wanting to race. Instead we want to race for the checkered flag and you can't do that if you get caught up in a wreck early in the race."
Ince and Benson did just that and contended for the victory until the final lap when he fell to seventh in the last-lap shuffling.
Benson started 37th and beat a tactical retreat to the back of the field where he and 150,000 spectators watched the sometimes three- and occasionally four-abreast racing. Benson stayed at the back lurking far enough behind the lead pack to avoid trouble that developed there but close enough not to lose sight of the leaders -- all the time waiting for Ince to tell him it was time to go to the front of the field.
"Things are OK. I'm just riding back here," Benson told Ince over the radio early in the race. Benson stayed at the back of the lead pack despite a broken jack on the first pit stop then a plastic bag wedged against the right side hood pin that hurt him aerodynamically. The crew removed the bag during a pit stop.
While Benson waited, the lead pack avoided any serious trouble and the laps began to wind down without a single caution flag making an appearance. But Ince was not ready to send his driver to the front.
"They're getting ambitious up there so be careful. It's not time to go yet," Ince told Benson.
With less than 40 laps to go Benson pitted for the final time. The Valvoline crew turned a 16-second stop and returned him to the track in 28th place.
With 25 laps to go the order from Ince finally came.
"OK, Hero it's time to haul up through there," commanded Ince. "Get going."
With that Benson put the throttle to the floorboard and began creeping up through the pack. He moved to seventh with about 20 to go and a few laps later he lined up behind Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch as the trio ran in single file in the first three places.
"Just stay on the bottom," Ince said. "They can't get you down there. With one or two to go we will make our run."
As the laps wound down the tension increased and Benson nearly slid the car broadside in the tri-oval a few times trying to keep Mark Martin and the rest of hard-driving pack behind him.
The laps slowly wound down but once the white flag fell the drivers at the front began shuffling positions. Bobby Hamilton led a pack to the outside that got enough momentum to pass by the lead trio and as the field came to the trio-oval Benson crossed the line in seventh.
"I thought we were going to get a little bit better finish than that," Benson said after the race. "But you can't complain about a top ten here so I don't feel too bad about what happened."
There were 37 lead changes among 26 drivers Sunday in a 500-mile race that averaged 184 mph and lasted 2 hours, 43 minutes and 3 seconds -- the third shortest 500-mile race in NASCAR history.
Benson's seventh place finish enables him to grab third place in the 2001 points solely for himself as well as make up ground on leaders Dale Jarrett and Jeff Gordon as well as Sterling Marlin and Steve Park who were tied or right behind Benson in the standings.
Benson and the Valvoline team test at Pocono on Monday and Tuesday for Goodyear then race in California next weekend.