The Racing Capital
of the World
Jul 26, 2015
July 27, 2011 | By Bruce Martin
There was just something about the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that suited Johnny Benson Jr.’s driving style.
Benson, a likeable driver from Grand Rapids, Mich., never was considered a “star” at the NASCAR Cup level, but he came into the series in 1996 as the reigning champion in what is now the NASCAR Nationwide Series. After winning the late model championship at Berlin Raceway in Marne, Mich., Benson moved up to the American Speed Association in 1990 and became Rookie of the Year. Three years later, he was the ASA series champion. He moved up to what was then the NASCAR Busch Series and won Rookie of the Year in 1994 and the Busch Series championship in 1995.
When he arrived at the Speedway for the third Brickyard 400 in 1996, Benson was enjoying a solid rookie season in Cup. What he did that day was spectacular as he put the Pennzoil Pontiac in front of an impressive field of NASCAR drivers for 70 of the 160 laps in the race after starting 14th.
“I thought as the race was going, ‘Man, we have a shot,’” Benson said. “You never know until you get to the end, but we had a shot of winning that race. Myself and Ernie Irvan were the two guys that dominated that race. He ended up having a tire go and we had a bad pit stop, and Dale Jarrett ended up winning the race. The race was going to come down to myself or Ernie Irvan, and we both ran into problems late in the race and neither one of us capitalized on the opportunity to win it.”
This was the year of the infamous “Sod Staples” which were used to fasten the patches of grass sod into the surface at the apron of each of the Brickyard’s four corners. NASCAR drivers that day “mowed the lawn” by running their inside tires through the grass to cut the corners and many of them suffered punctured tires when the metal fasteners that held the sod in place came loose.
“I remember that, but I ran in the grass a lot during that race and I know we didn’t have any tire problems,” Benson said. “We had our problems on the last pit stop that took our opportunity away. Ernie had a tire problem and that took us out of contention to win the race. But the day itself was great. You still feel bummed leaving the track thinking we threw an opportunity away to win the race.”
Benson left that day as the eighth-place finisher in the 1996 Brickyard 400 and would go on to win the Raybestos Rookie of the Year Award at Bahari Racing.
He returned in 1997, and despite starting 20th, he led two laps and finished seventh.
“We had a good run but late in the race me and another car got together and almost wrecked,” Benson said. “Indy is such a momentum track that by the time we gathered it up and got going again, the world went by us and we didn’t have enough time to catch back up. Both years at Bahari, we had very successful runs there. Two years in a row we ran good. We weren’t good as my rookie year, but we ran decent. We thought we were going to finish a little better, but we did have an incident and that cost us a top-five finish. It was a good run.
“My two years with Roush, I had problems. One of them we got involved in a wreck, and the other one we just weren’t very good.”
Benson had switched teams for the 1998 season and drove the Cheerios Ford for team owner Jack Roush. He started 39th in both 1998 and 1999 and finished 25th and 19th, respectively.
He was back in a Pontiac for MB2 in 2000, and started 13th and finished 25th. But in 2001, he started 26th and had his best-ever finish at Indianapolis when he was third behind race winner Jeff Gordon and Sterling Marlin.
“That was a good day for us, too, because we started the race just horrible,” Benson said. “I remember talking to James Ince, my crew chief. We wanted to make some changes, but the changes we made were not a normal pit stop. Because the track was so big, we took a chance on it, made some major changes. We had to go underneath the car and move some stuff around and almost went a lap down under caution. We were able to come back out and make our way up to third. If we had gone green the rest of the way, I think we would have made it on fuel and the rest of the cars wouldn’t. It helped us, too, but third place is still a great, great day. It was a great race for us for starting off as bad as we did and overcame some adjustments we wouldn’t be able to do on a shorter track. We were able to make those changes, and the car took off. We had a great run.”
He finished 37th in 2002 and 13th in 2003 in what would be his last Brickyard 400. His only Cup victory came in 2002 at Rockingham, N.C. Three years later, Benson joined the Camping World Truck Series, where he accumulated career marks of 14 wins, 87 top-10s and five poles. He was the Camping World Truck Series champion in 2008. Ironically, Benson had announced before clinching the championship that he would not be returning to Bill Davis Racing. A ride at Red Horse Racing ended after eight races in 2009 because of lack of sponsorship.
“I’ve always been in that small scenario of running 11th, 12th or 13th in points and was never able to get into the top 10,” Benson said of his Cup career. “But I enjoyed my career in the Cup Series. Indianapolis is one of those places where we consistently ran well.”
What were the reasons for Benson’s success at the Brickyard? It was a track that seemed to match his driving style.
“We’ve all done a lot of short-track racing and the tracks that I grew up on were really a finesse style of racetrack,” he said. “Even though Indy is a 2-1/2-mile racetrack, it’s still a finesse-style track. That fits my driving style.
“I was with Doug Hewitt and Bahari Racing. Doug has always given me great race cars, and for that race we were real spot-on. As far as being a rookie, we had a great race. We kind of threw it away at the end. My pit stop was bad, and I stalled the car. We went from leading the race back to 18th or 19th and were able to make it back up to sixth or seventh. All in all, we had a great day. Other times I’ve run third, which is my best run there. I’ve always seemed to run good there, and the only explanation I have is that I seem to do well on finesse type of racetracks.
“We just didn’t have as much success at those other tracks. I feel I’m good at tire management and good when the track is hot, slick and slimy. Those are the tracks that we excelled at.
“I don’t believe in knocking and banging. What I see today reminds me of go-kart racing. They don’t try to pass people; they just go up and knock them out of the way. You see a lot more of that now than when I was running. When you have your Mark Martins and Rusty Wallaces; those guys did not do that stuff, but it seems that a lot of the newer guys coming in think it’s OK to run into somebody. I sit there and watch and if somebody screws up in front of you, you touch the brake pedal. Today, a guy runs into the back of somebody, and their excuse is, ‘He must have let off the gas.’ You have to drive your car, too. I just see that it’s very different today than what it was then. I’m not one that supports that, but that is what the sport is today.”
As a youngster growing up in Grand Rapids, Mich., the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was the “Promised Land” for any aspiring racer. But at that time, the Indianapolis 500 was the only race contest on the famed oval.
“As a kid growing up when you think stock cars, you think Daytona. When you think Indy cars, you think of Indianapolis,” Benson said. “I grew