Valvoline, Benson Matinsville II race report

Benson Posts Career-Best 5th at Martinsville In The End Ince's Strategy Works Perfect, Benson Holds Off New Tire Cars ...

Benson Posts Career-Best 5th at Martinsville
In The End Ince's Strategy Works Perfect, Benson Holds Off New Tire Cars

#10 Valvoline Pontiac driver Johnny Benson started a career-best fifth on Monday at Martinsville Speedway and after almost four hours of fender-rubbing racing he finished a career-best sixth at the flat, southern Virginia half-mile track.

But, it wasn't easy for the driver who admits the beating and banging needed to succeed at one of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series' most rough-and-tumble tracks just doesn't fit his style.

And, it took a little bit of strategy and some tough driving to do it.

"I couldn't be any happier or any more tired," said Benson whose workout program this year allowed him to climb from the car in nearly the same condition as he began the race.

"I'm just extremely excited," Benson said. "(Crew Chief) James Ince built this car to bring to this racetrack because I've struggled so bad here, and it made all the difference in the world. The car was probably better than where I got it to finish, but I drove my butt off and that's all I could do. Believe me, I'm happy as heck leaving here."

The weekend began well as Benson qualified fifth surpassing his previous best qualifying effort of 18th at Martinsville. Throughout the Saturday practices Benson and the Valvoline Pontiac were near the top of the practice charts.

But when the green flag fell on Monday, the rain that had fallen all day Sunday and forced the postponement seemed to have washed away the rubber and changed the handling characteristics of the 50-year-old race track.

"I don't have any grip at all," Benson reported over the team radio. "We've lost a lot from yesterday. If we continue like this we are going to get lapped in no time."

Ince called Benson into the pits and began making major chassis changes improving the Valvoline Pontiac bit by bit even Benson fell as far back as 37th. While other teams opted for two-tire stops or even elected to stay on the track, Benson and Ince elected to keep putting four tires planning for long runs and working on their late-race strategy.

"We knew we had to get our car working right," Ince said. "Plus, it was too early to start trying some of the stuff those guys were trying. We wanted to save our surprise for the end."

Ince decided to wait and show his hand with about 25 laps to go in the 500-lap race. Benson was midpack at that time having worked his way from the back when Joe Nemecheck and Kenny Wallace spun in turn three.

While the leaders all came to pit road for fresh tires, Benson and Ince decided to stay on the track. The Valvoline Pontiac moved to the front of the pack and when the race restarted Benson knew he would have his hands full holding off Kevin Harvick who was right behind him as well as a long line of cars with fresher rubber.

"I didn't know what was going to happen just that they were going to have to work if they were going to get by me," Benson said.

Benson led four laps, but it didn't take long for Harvick to slam Benson out of the way and allow he and Bobby Hamilton into the lead. Benson held his ground and only grudgingly allowed Ricky Craven, Dale Jarrett, Ward Burton and Bobby Labonte by as well. Harvick and Hamilton eventually tangled in turn three with Hamilton losing several spots in the spin and NASCAR penalizing Harvick one lap.

In the closing laps, Benson, whose best Martinsville finish was ninth, waged a side-by-side dual with Jeff Burton who managed to squeeze past just at the finish line to claim fifth place.

The late race strategy had worked. A mid pack finish turned into a sixth place finish.

"That was something I thought about for 400 laps," Ince said. "That was something I knew I was going to do. I had to do the opposite of what the leaders did all day long because we had to come early to work on the car. It's kind of fun to make those calls."

Benson was second at Kansas City and eighth at Charlotte last week when he fell out of the race with engine problems. Did Benson think midway through Monday's race that he had a top ten car?

"Never," he smiled. "I guess at one point in time during the race I kind of thought we did, but we needed a little help and we needed to help ourselves. It all worked out."

Ince pointed out the strategy might have been right, but only because he knew Benson could hold the steering wheel of a car with old tires and hold off a majority of the better cars on newer tires.

"It's really nice to know that when it gets to the end of the race and you've got to do what you've got to do, you've got a race car driver that can sit up on the wheel and wheel the thing," Ince explained.

"He was at a disadvantage there. But we tried all day long to put ourselves in a position to have track position at the end of the race and have the car as good as we could, and it worked out that he was going to have to do what he did. We thought on Saturday that we were good enough to win here, but the track changed a little bit for us and we didn't get it as good as we wanted to get. But to get out of here with a top 10 - man, that says a lot about this race team."

Ince said the team knew it was at a disadvantage at Martinsville. But it worked to get better. The team built a special car for Benson and spent a day this month testing at Greenville-Pickens Speedway in South Carolina.

"This is, by far, the worst racetrack on the circuit for us as a team and this gives a sense of achievement for everybody. This is something that all of our guys can be proud of."

Craven won Monday's race holding off Jarrett in the closing laps. While Benson wanted to win, he didn't seem to mind Craven's victory.

"Ricky got hurt a few years ago and I guess a lot of people doubted he would ever come back so it was pretty cool he could win today," said Benson who shook Craven's hand as the Maine driver drove down pit road after the race. "We sure want to win, but it makes you feel good when a guy who has been through all he has been through does something like he did today."

Benson's day didn't end after the race. He drove back to his home near Charlotte, N.C. for a quick shower and meal then he and his teammates drove in vans to Atlanta Motor Speedway on Monday night for a two-day test. The team will then driver to Talladega on Thursday for Sunday's race at the Talladega Superspeedway.

2001 Point Standings

Pos.     Driver         Points  Winnings

12 Johnny Benson 3435 $2,203,470


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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Burton , Ward Burton , Bobby Hamilton , Dale Jarrett , Bobby Labonte , Kevin Harvick , Kenny Wallace , Johnny Benson , Ricky Craven