Benson No Longer A Surprise

DARLINGTON, S.C. – Finishing near the front of the pack is no longer a surprise for Johnny Benson. It’s come to be expected from the driver of the No. 10 Valvoline Pontiac.

No longer a pretender, Benson has become a weekly contender in the highly competitive NASCAR Winston Cup Series. Sunday’s Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington Raceway was certainly no exception.

Benson qualified in the fourth position and ran in the Top 10 throughout the afternoon, even leading 25 laps on his way to a seventh-place finish. The top-10 run, his fourth straight and fourth in five races this season, has put him into a second-place tie with Sterling Marlin in the Winston Cup points chase, 65 points behind leader Dale Jarrett, who won Sunday’s 400-miler.

Only five races into the 2001 season, Benson said he isn’t too concerned about the standings just yet.

“We're not worrying about points because it’s early,” Benson said. “I don't know if we're a championship-caliber team yet, and that’s important for us to realize. We've started off great, but on the same token, I think we'll have a better shot next year than we will this year because we're still learning as a team.

“It's still relatively new for all of us to be together (his team), but we're working hard. I'm real proud of these guys and I hope we're going to be really good in the future.”

After a 28th-place finish at Daytona to open the season, Benson has finished sixth at Rockingham, fourth at Las Vegas and seventh at Atlanta to go along with Sunday’s performance.

It wasn’t that long ago when Benson’s future was more than a bit cloudy, especially after a two-year stint with Roush Racing – one of the premier organizations in the sport – that was less than productive.

When that fell apart and Benson was let go, the 1996 Winston Cup Rookie of the Year struggled to find his identity in the series. He then hooked up with team owner Tim Beverley, who sold his team last year to Nelson Bowers and MB2 Motorsports.

Benson finished 13th in the points a year ago in his first year with the team, and with a new, top-notch sponsor like Valvoline coming on board this season, enthusiasm abounded within the organization.

With his MB2 Motorsports team, Benson is beginning to realize his potential as a frontrunner and a contender to win races.

“We're going to get a victory sometime, I'm just not sure when,” Benson said.

Sunday’s Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 appeared at one point as if it might be the one as Benson led from laps 201 to 225. A bad pit stop late in the race, however, dropped Benson from first to eighth, and he could never make up the ground between him and the leaders Dale Jarrett and Steve Park.

In order for the team to win, however, crew chief James Ince said the entire team has to work harder toward the goal. Ince was not pleased with Benson’s pit stops throughout the afternoon.

“I've lost a hell of a lot of these things and I'm not willing to lose any more, especially when we've got a shot,” Ince said. “This is three races in a row we've had an opportunity to win and we've hurt ourselves. We come to these things to win… whatever it takes to win… our egos are above the fact and we will do whatever it takes to get the job done. Everybody understands that or they wouldn't work on this team.”

Ince was so upset at his crew Sunday that he asked for help from Jeff Gordon’s crew late in the race. Gordon retired with overheating problems and his crew was asked to come help the Valvoline crew with the final couple of pit stops for Benson.

“We probably shouldn't have changed, but in the same token we needed to get back up there so maybe we could pull off a win,” Benson said. “My guys are still doing a tremendous job, but we've been a little inconsistent and need to be better.

“With practice, they're going to be good and we want them to pit the car. It wasn't meant as disrespect to anybody on the pit crew. We just asked for a little help.”

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