Benson Faces Ups And Downs

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HAMPTON, Ga. – Looking back at the 2000 season, Johnny Benson has mixed feelings about his team’s trips to Atlanta Motor Speedway.

On one hand, Benson and his No. 10 Pontiac team finished 10th in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series season finale NAPA 500. A top-10 finish was exactly the momentum he and his team needed to carry into the offseason and then into 2001.

On the other hand, there was last spring’s Cracker Barrel 500. Benson and his team limped back north on I-85 to North Carolina after failing to qualify. Rains forced the cancellation of second-round qualifying, and thus ruined the team’s chances of making the race.

A tremendous disappointment for Benson, for sure, after nearly winning the Daytona 500 only a couple of weeks previously. Last spring’s failure has lit a fire under Benson and the No. 10 Valvoline Pontiac team, as it returns to Atlanta this weekend for Sunday’s Cracker Barrel 500.

Benson’s team was high up in the owner’s points prior to last spring’s race, but since it was only the fourth race of the season, its place in the race wasn’t secure. For the first four races of the year, provisionals are based on owner’s points from the previous year, and Benson’s team didn’t have enough to qualify.

“The deal at Atlanta was just one of those things that caught us a little bit off guard, but it was a heartbreaker – sitting there 11th in points and having that happen,” said Benson, who qualified 19th for this Sunday’s race. “But we went back to the shop on Sunday morning and had a nice meeting. It wasn't a yelling session. It was just a deal where James Ince said, ‘Hey, keep your heads up guys. This is a good race team. I’m sorry this happened, but this is a good race team.’

“We all talked about it and got it off our chests, then didn’t have to worry about it again. We sat around for probably a good hour and a half and just discussed it. The floor was open. And as much as it surprised me, there wasn't anybody there that had his head down. Don’t get me wrong – they weren’t happy. But they all sat there straight in their chair with their head high and said, ‘We’ll overcome this.

“We’ll work hard at getting back to where we need to be,’ and they did. To have that happen and still end up 13th in the final points, we're pretty proud of that.”

Benson refused to even watch last year’s Cracker Barrel 500 - which had one of the best finishes of the year - on television.

“I don’t know how hard it was to watch the Atlanta race in March because I didn’t watch it,” Benson said. “I took my daughters out to lunch that day and to a fun park that afternoon. So we made the best of it that day. I hope the only fun park they’re going to get to go to this Sunday in Atlanta is victory lane.”

While Benson couldn’t stand to watch, Ince said he was left with little choice.

“It hurt to sit home and watch that race on television. We knew we were better than half those team racing there that day. If it did anything it struck a fire under us to go out in the rest of the races and prove what we could do. We will be better this weekend. In fact I don’t ever expect to have to endure what we did here last year. That was a nightmare that just won’t happen again.”

Benson said he and the rest of the No. 10 Valvoline team have taken major steps to prevent that.

“We’re extremely confident,” Benson said. “James said he doesn't like this track, but we ran 10th in November and I think we will be even better Sunday. Everyone is pretty enthused around the shop these days. We finished fifth at Rockingham and fourth at Las Vegas in the past two weeks. This team is far from hitting its stride and we are turning in some pretty good finishes. This is the most optimistic I have ever been in my racing career, without a doubt.”

Ince has never been a huge fan of Atlanta Motor Speedway.

“Without a doubt Atlanta is the toughest track to set up a car,” Ince says. “For some reason, I have always had a tough time getting my cars to run there. We missed the show there last year with Johnny. I don’t know why that is.

“Atlanta may look like Charlotte and Texas where we run well, but for some reason we haven’t figured out the first race at Atlanta. We finished 10th there in the fall last year so that shows we are figuring it out. Maybe this will be the week we get the Atlanta monkey off our backs.”

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