Johnny On The Spot

Like most nice guys, Johnny Benson is in danger of being overlooked again.

Benson finished 11th in the Winston Cup points standings last year. He had six top-five finishes…

…And, in so doing, he didn’t satisfy a whole lot of people, least of all himself.

It’s time for Benson to win a race. He knows it. Everyone knows it. He’s been nudging his Pontiac around the edge of the imaginary chain-link fence that borders victory lane for a long time now. Too long. Lesser drivers, lots of them, have won races.

It’s not easy. If it was, Benson would have a dozen victories by now. There is no great public acclaim in being the best driver never to have won a race. It’s kind of the NASCAR version of a “moral victory.” By that standard, Benson is about as moral as Jerry Falwell, or at least as moral as Falwell proclaims to the world he is.

(This is one of those grammatical briar bushes. No, Falwell hasn’t been telling the world how moral Johnny Benson is. It’s a pun.)

So do something about it! (Not Falwell. Benson.)

For a long time now, Benson has been recognized as a fine driver. It’s obvious from watching him. He’s in danger, though, of becoming his generation’s Joe Ruttman. Ruttman is a fine driver who somehow never won a Cup race during his 1980s heyday. (Question: Can a driver who never won a race have a heyday?) Names like Ernie Banks, Bob Dole and Roy Orbison come to mind, for some reason.

Ruminating recently on the 2001 season, Benson said, “No I wasn’t totally pleased. We didn’t reach our goals. We wanted to win a race, and we wanted to finish in the top six in points, and we didn’t achieve that. We know those were lofty, but you have to aim high. It wasn’t from a lack of hard work. We worked hard all year, but we broke six or seven engines and that really hurt us.

“We had a decent season. (And what Johnny Benson season isn’t decent?) To finish 11th isn’t bad, and we had three third-place finishes, and there aren’t a lot of teams that can say that. We’re just going to keep working hard, and, man, I’m looking forward to the new season. This is a really good group of guys, and we are starting to mature and become a really good team.”

Man, I’m looking forward to it. I would like nothing better than to see a Johnny Benson victory. Several, in fact. I always have thought the guy was the real deal. He is a decent, honest fellow, the kind of person who actually assumes the best about those around him. He believes NASCAR is trying to be fair. He believes the guy who gave him a shot in the bumper just couldn’t get “checked up” in time.

Benson is an optimist, and optimists are supposed to be successful because it’s what they believe, and it comes true because they believe it will.

“We have about the same goals as we had last year,” he said. “I think we can finish in the top six and we’d like to win a race. Both of those aren’t too far out of our reach. We are getting better and better each year, and I expect that to continue in 2002. There are some guys who have won a race before we have, but there are very few teams who run as well as we do week in and week out, and in the long run, that is going to help our program more than anything else.

“I’m not frustrated by not having that win yet, and I’m not frustrated, because we’re close,” he insisted. “I’m happy that we’re close, that we’re having these opportunities to maybe win one of these races. If you're running 10th, 15th, 20th or 25th, that’s when I get frustrated. If you’re running in the top 10 or in the top five, one of these days we’re going to get it done, so we’re not frustrated with finishing second, although the end goal is to be first. I’d rather be in that scenario than in the other, as far as being at the back. I’d be more frustrated at the back than I am running in the top 10.”

That’s Johnny: honest and optimistic to a fault. Sooner or later, his time is bound to come.

Isn’t it?

“With all the stuff that happens at the end of the race, you never give up. I know everyone always says that, but it is really true this year,” Benson said. “NASCAR is so competitive that if you are on the lead lap, you could be OK by the end of the race. You work on your car to get it better and better and spend the first two thirds of the race preparing for the end.

“Obviously, you would like to lead every lap and win the race, but if you aren’t there your goal is to improve so that, when the end comes, you can get to the front…nowadays, it’s all about the end. That’s when it counts the most.”

As Benson keep telling himself, things could be a lot worse, and are at some other teams.

“The best thing I ever did was move to this race team,” Benson said. “It’s been great working with (crew chief) James Ince. I love his philosophy and his ‘let's go out and win some races’ attitude. If I was going to own a race team, that is something I’d want. I’d want that kind of person that wants to go out there and do whatever it takes to win races and, eventually, win a championship. That’s what it’s all about.

“I’ve been in different situations where that really wasn’t the attitude, and that makes life miserable. For the guys in our race shop to have the attitude they have is great. It’s something that I hope stays there for quite a long time.”

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