Valvoline Team Turns 30th Place Car Into 6th Place Finish At Richmond Benson Moves To Within 79 Points of Series Points Lead ...
Valvoline Team Turns 30th Place Car Into 6th Place Finish At Richmond Benson Moves To Within 79 Points of Series Points Lead
#10 Valvoline Pontiac Driver Johnny Benson and his crew chief James Ince weren't very happy campers Friday night after Happy Hour practice at Richmond International Raceway.
Benson had just qualified eleventh but during the practice session held a few minutes later, the red, white, and blue Valvoline Pontiac wasn't remotely close to the type of car he wanted for the 400-lap NASCAR Winston Cup race scheduled for Saturday night.
"We were just way too tight," Benson said as he and Ince huddled in the trailer to solve the problems. "It's going to be a long race if we don't get this fixed."
Ince was more direct.
"We have a 30th place car right now," he said.
So Benson and Ince spent much of Friday night and all day Saturday pondering what they needed to do to make their car turn better in the corner. There was no practice Saturday so all the changes to the shocks, springs, truck arms, pannard bar, and wedge would only be evident once the race began.
"OK guys we didn't get to have a team meeting tonight because we were so busy but most of you know we changed everything in the car with the exception of Johnny," Ince told the crew over the team radio as Benson started the first of three pace laps before the race.
Ince predicted it would take about two or three laps for him to know if the changes were the remedy for the problems. And he was right. Benson didn't take long to show that this was going to be a whole lot better than the practice session just 24 hours before.
"Believe it or not I'm loose," Benson said in the early going as he started climbing through the field. By lap 88 he was in sixth place in the race that had run with few cautions. At the lap 139 mark, Benson drove past Mark Martin for 5th place and figured this might be a night to remember.
"Keep doing what you are doing," Ince told him on the radio. "I think we went the right way with the changes. Just keep being patient."
Although Benson demonstrated he was one of the fastest cars on the track throughout the race, it didn't mean he was comfortable on the D-shaped oval. The sealant put down by track officials earlier in the year began coming up through the race making the .75-mile track bumpy and slippery.
"This thing is a pain in the neck to drive, but if it is fast then lets keep going in this direction," Benson said. He maintained his position through the middle stages of the race sometimes running as high as fourth and sometimes dropping as low as seventh.
In the closing laps of the race, Benson staged a strong run rolling past Jarrett for sixth on lap 324, Earnhardt on lap 335 for fifth, then battling side-by-side with Jeff Gordon on lap 358 for fourth. Passing Gordon proved difficult and the tussle allowed Dale Jarrett and Steve Park to move Benson down the scoring pylon.
Benson was seventh and appeared that is where he would take the checkered flag, but Dave Blaney's blown engine with just three laps left in the race brought out the red flag. When the race restarted for the short sprint to the end, Jarrett's car ran out of fuel forcing him to pit road and moving Benson into sixth.
A last gasp bid for fifth saw Benson slide sideways preventing his effort to pass Ricky Rudd.
"That was a handful," Benson said after the race. "I thought for a while we were going to be up there fighting with the leaders but we just couldn't make it. Considering where we came from last night to where we are now, I think you would have to say we are pleased."
The sixth place finish dropped Benson to fourth in the 2001 points race as Rusty Wallace moved into third, but Benson is now only 79 points out of the lead held by Jarrett. Benson was 150 points behind Jarrett two races ago.
"I'm not racing for points," Benson said. "I'm not worried about that - yet."
Ince put the race in perspective.
"A sixth place finish isn't winning but it's better than the 30th-place finish we would have had if we hadn't made the changes."
Tony Stewart gave Pontiac its first victory of the season and was followed across the finish line by Gordon, Wallace, Park, Rudd and Benson.
Benson and his Valvoline teammates will enjoy an off weekend then return to action at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the Winston Open.