Benson Has Eye On No. 1

In his five-plus years on the circuit, Johnny Benson still has never won a NASCAR Winston Cup Series race.

But then, consistency is another thing Benson had never really achieved, either… until now.

The driver of the No. 10 Pontiac, who had a world of potential when he came into the series in 1996, has finally become a legitimate top-five contender week-in and week-out.

Benson showed just how much he and his team have improved this season by turning what he termed as a “mediocre car” into a sixth-place run in Saturday night’s Pontiac Excitement 400 at Richmond International Raceway.

“We’re real happy about this,” Benson said of his seventh top-10 finish of the season, one that dropped him one place in the standings, to fourth, but helped him move to within 79 points of leader Dale Jarrett. “The Valvoline Pontiac ran really well.

“The guys did an excellent job. I wasn’t happy with the car, but I’m happy with the finish. It was just a handful, but still good enough to finish sixth.”

Benson started Saturday night’s race from the 11th position, but it was apparent during the final practice session Friday night he was unhappy with how the car was performing.

“We were just way too tight,” Benson said. “It was going to be a long race for us if we didn’t get the car fixed.”

Benson’s crew chief, James Ince, told Benson during “Happy Hour” practice he thought the No. 10 Pontiac was a “30th-place car.” The Valvoline team worked on the car all day Saturday and made adjustments, but in fact over-adjusted it.

Once the race got started, Benson told Ince the car was loose. More adjustments were made, and Benson was able to maintain his position in the Top 10 throughout most of the 400 miles.

The car continued to be “a pain in the neck” for Benson to drive for the rest of the race, but Benson’s maturity and knowledge he’s gained over the years racing at Richmond allowed him to stay with the leaders. In the past, such a situation would have frustrated the former Winston Cup Rookie of the Year and finishing out of the Top 10 in a race would have been a foregone conclusion.

Those days in Benson’s career appear to be gone.

“I thought for a while we were going to be up there fighting with the leaders, but we just couldn’t make it,” said Benson, who couldn’t prevent Ricky Rudd from getting past him in the final laps for fifth place. “Considering where we came from (Friday night during Happy Hour) to where we finished, I would have to say we are very pleased.”

As was Ince. “A sixth-place finish isn’t winning, but it’s better than the 30th-place finish we could have had,” Ince said.

Benson has now gone 172 starts without a victory in his Winston Cup career. And although he’s pleased to be where he is in the standings, very much within striking distance of Jarrett, it’s a trip to victory lane he’s so adamantly chasing right now.

“I’m not racing for points,” Benson said. “I ain’t worried about that – yet.”

He may not be concerned about it, but you can bet Jarrett, Jeff Gordon and Rusty Wallace – the three drivers ahead of him in the points – know he’s there, and there to stay.

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