It's a rare for racers to not want to race. Neither ...
It's a rare for racers to not want to race.
Neither #10 Tyler Jet Motorsports Pontiac driver Johnny Benson nor any of the 42 other NASCAR Winston Cup drivers were all that interested in doing what they do best Sunday at the New Hampshire International Speedway.
On Friday their comrade Kenny Irwin perished in a turn-three accident and on this overcast and sometimes rainy afternoon in New England, strapping on their helmets, buckling their seatbelts and firing the engines seemed a lot harder than at any time in the 2000 season or at any point in their careers.
"But, we have a job to do and we have to do it," Benson said before the race. "Everybody here would gladly cancel this race if it would bring Kenny back, but that just isn't going to happen. So we have to do what we are paid to do. I'd rather be at home today with the family; everyone would rather be at home today. But racing is what we do even in times like this."
After observing a moment of silence for Irwin, the green flag fell and those 43 drivers raced as hard as they have at any point in the season. Heavy hearts don't slow race cars.
For Benson and his Tyler Jet team, Sunday's race was a microcosm of their 2000 season that has seen them go from an afterthought to maybe the biggest surprise in the sport. On Sunday Benson started 38th - off the charts of prognosticators considering who would be a threat to challenge for the lead - and earned a respectable 14th place finish that would have been about seven positions better if rain had not arrived canceling the race with 20 laps remaining.
When the green flag fell Benson began slicing his way through the pack on the narrow, flat, one-mile oval. Benson picked off about a dozen cars in the opening laps and worked his way to about 15th where he remained for most of the race. Both before and after an hour-long rain delay in the middle of the race, Benson's car was faster although it didn't show up in the running order.
While others elected to stay on the track not risking falling to the back of the field, Benson's crew chief James Ince took full advantage of each caution period bringing Benson in for gas and tires. Ince hoped that toward the end of the race his fuel and tire strategy might pay bigger dividends.
"I know we are giving up track position now but it's going to mean spots at the end of the race," Ince radioed Benson. "Hang in there with me."
As the end of the race neared, it appeared Ince had hit the jackpot. That is until Mother Nature intervened and ruined his race strategy.
Benson was right on the bumper of leader and eventual winner Tony Stewart. Although he had just been lapped, Benson was only slightly slower than Stewart and one of the fastest on the track as he followed his fellow Pontiac driver gaining time on others that were soon to be lapped.
But Benson's ace card was the fact that all those earlier pits stops made a final stop in the closing laps unnecessary while almost half of the cars ahead of him would have to make a late-race dash for the pits that would have let Benson pass.
He was poised for a top-ten and maybe even a top-five finish when the raindrops that had fallen steadily through the second-half of the race increased in intensity finally bringing out the red flag and forcing the cars to park on the front stretch.
"We were looking good there at the end," he said. "I think if the rain had held off we would have ended up about seventh which would have been pretty cool. But it didn't. You try to control as much as you can during the race but nobody has figured out the weather yet."
NASCAR waited more than an hour before finally canceling the race leaving Benson in 14th and bringing a sigh of relief from everyone in the garage wishing an end to the most hellish weekend in recent memory.
"I'm happy with 14th, but no matter where we finished today I doubt I would remember it for too long. It's Kenny who all of us will remember."
JOHNNY BENSON, NO. 10 TYLER JET PONTIAC GRAND PRIX: "We've got a good race car. We've just got to get that driver to qualify good and not get ourselves in the back. But it was late in the race before we got a lap down. There were almost 60 to go before we got ourselves in that position. Had it gone green I think we would have been in really good shape. But the rain kind of hurt us. Tony was fast enough to hold us down that lap, and we just didn't quite beat him back to the line. I think our day was decent, but I feel we had a little better car than that. We've just got to start up front a little better."
JAMES INCE, CREW CHIEF, NO. 10 TYLER JET PONTIAC GRAND PRIX: "Anytime you start in the back at Loudon and come out of it with a top 15 finish, it's not a bad day. I think we had a better race car than that. If things would have cycled and the rain would have stayed away I think we would have run in the top 10. But I don't think we can complain. Right now we're trying to hold onto our points and we're a little bit ahead. I think we learned some things to come back here in six or seven weeks."