#10 Valvoline Pontiac driver Johnny Benson and the rest of the Nascar Winston Cup fraternity are just days away from going to Daytona and beginning the 2003 season.
Last season, Benson earned his first career victory at Rockingham on Nov. 3. The victory capped a season that saw him suffer through two serious injuries that each involved broken ribs and missed races.
Benson's Valvoline team led by Crew Chief James Ince tested at Daytona and Las Vegas during the off-season. The team will introduce its new 2003 Pontiac Grand Prix model at Daytona -- the first new Pontiac model since 1996.
Benson is joined this season by new teammate Jerry Nadeau who will driver the #01 Army Pontiac. Benson will again join Michael Waltrip and Kenny Schrader for another season of Inside Winston Cup aired weekly on the Speed Channel.
Your thoughts on new teammate Jerry Nadeau?
"Jerry is going to bring a lot to our team. He's fast. Look at his qualifying record. That's been our weakness so maybe he can help us a bit. Jerry filled in for me for a few races when I was out of the car last year and he really worked well with James and the team. I think he and Ryan Pemberton and our team will work well together. Sure we are going to race each other hard on the track but I hope we will be in each other's trailers comparing notes after practices and qualifying. Plus, it's kind of cool to have all those Army generals and uniforms walking around our shop. I think we might have the safest race shop in Nascar."
Any major changes for 2003?
"We haven't changed much on our team. We have had some personnel changes in the shop and James says this is the best crew he has ever taken to the track. But we have the same driver, crew chief, sponsor, owner and even paint scheme. Valvoline likes what we have done and we like what we have done. We hope our experience together will pay off."
Describe your new Pontiac Grand Prix:
"Obviously, we have a new Pontiac coming out. It's new to all the fans and media but to James it's a pretty old friend. He has been working on this car for a long time. We feel that it's as good new as what we ended up with last year and has a lot more potential. The old Pontiac was a great car but I was part of the unveiling in 1996. We haven't had a new model since then. That's ancient in racing teams. This new model has a lot of potential and the General Motors folks as well as crew guys in the garage and spent an awful lot of hours working to make it fast."
Will you win in 2003?
"We hope so. If that second one is going to be harder than the first one, I might as well quit now. It was great to finally get that done. The guys do work hard, we have been there close so many times and it was great to get in the victory lane and have a good time. Hopefully we can do more in 2003."
How did the off season testing go?
"The test at Daytona went well. One of the cars was actually pretty good and we are excited about that because it was our backup car, so we are bringing that down as our primary. The car we have for the backup will be a good racecar too. We will use that at Talladega. So going down there we will have two really good racecars. And with it being the 2003 Pontiac, that will be a good thing and I'm looking forward to being with Valvoline again.
"We went to Las Vegas as well and were pretty satisfied with what we got done there. You can't beat a test at Las Vegas. The weather is good and it's not like we get bored at night. I don't think anyone has ever had a bad test at Vegas."
How frustrating were the 2002 injuries?
"The injuries were just an unfortunate part of the season where we had some time out of the race car, but as the team got back into where we felt that we should have been at the beginning the year we started doing pretty good again. So not really the second half, probably the last third of the season, we felt like we got back to where we were at the end of last year or during the 2001 season. As long as we can maintain that, which I think we are capable of doing, and start the year off good, I think our year will go okay. I sat here last year and thought we were going to have a really good year and it was rough. I don't want to say we will have a great year this time and jinx us."
Are you 100 percent after your injuries?
"I'm 100 percent. I was 100 percent before the year was out it was probably as far as in the race car it took probably two or three weeks getting back into the car where I felt I was in pretty good shape. Maybe the first time that I thought I probably went in a tad bit early for that injury that I had there, and it was sore for quite a while but when I did wreck at Daytona, the second time, it didn't hurt anything from the first one. So I felt I was in, you know, okay shape actually getting back in the car the second time more so than the first time. So I was fine. Like I say, it just took a couple of weeks is all."
Describe your crew chief James Ince?
"It's been great to work with James. He is one of those guys that's not afraid to make a change, be it last minute or during the race. We have changed stuff during the race probably the average guy wouldn't attempt to do even when you your car is not terrible. We have been able to take some cars that we did not feel were very good at the start of the race and make it a pretty good racecar as the race goes on. Rockingham was a good example. If you look at how we qualified, how we ran practice, and how we felt, after happy hour, we didn't think we had a chance of running the top 25 let alone winning that race. We looked at what we needed to do and we weren't afraid to throw something in there that we were not sure what was going to happen. It's one of those deals we ended up hitting it pretty close. So we made adjustments as the race went on. He is not afraid, you know, to take his notebook and throw it away and start off with a clean sheet of paper before the race starts. I've got enough confidence in him. We talk about what we want to do and the direction we want in the race. At times he can put a very strong opinion of the way he wants to go. At times that's a good thing so I really enjoy it."
What's more important, to have one win in the year and not have a good season or have a good season without a win?
"I guess it's two ways to look at. I would rather go through the season and maybe only win one and win the Winston Cup Championship as opposed to winning four races and finishing out of the top 10. It depends how you want to view it. Yeah, the goal is to get in the top 10 and eventually work your way to a Championship. As you can see, over the last four or five years, the guy that wins the Winston Cup Championship didn't win just one or two races. He has got to win a bunch of races now and I think that NASCAR Winston Cup racing, being so competitive right now, that's what it takes to win the Championship. You got to have both. Yes, we need to get in the top 10 in points. It's something we have not done yet. I have been close twice right there sitting 11th. Our goal is to actually get on the stage and still win the races.
Does winning make you want to win more?
"It's not a deal where you want to just win one race and say it is good. Yes, that's important, it keeps my job, it keeps James's job, and it keeps Valvoline intact with us. Of course, the unique part of that is Valvoline owns half the race team so we can hold on to them pretty good or for them to hold on to us. But winning is what we are here for. We think in terms of trophies."
Are you doing inside Winston Cup again?
"That's the question I get asked the most. Everyone wants to talk about television and not racing. But the answer is yes. Me, Mikey and Kenny are going to do it for another year. We have been rehearsing in the off-season. I'm just joking. Actually I don't think we have ever prepared for that show. And it shows sometimes. But it's fun; Allen Bestwick makes it easy and the crew down there make our jobs simple. We just show up and talk. It will be on Mondays at 7 p.m. and Midnight and then 4:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and 11 p.m. on Wednesdays on Speed Channel."