Bill Weber
Formula One
 Friday, April 21
Benson's fresh start has him back on track
By Bill Weber
Special to

 In 1995, Johnny Benson was the hottest prospect in the Winston Cup garage. In 1996 he won the Rookie of the Year award with Bahari Racing. One year later, he moved on to Roush Racing.

But after two disappointing season, Benson abandoned that organization last November and moved to a more comfortable seat with a much smaller team. Benson is used to winning. But life in the Winston Cup Series hasn't been a Sunday drive for this mild-mannered man.

Dale Jarrett
Johnny Benson couldn't hold off Dale Jarrett at Daytona, but he turned a lot of heads with a strong Speedweeks.

"I don't want to keep changing jobs. I don't want to keep going from one place to another," Benson said."I can't sit here and hate the decisions I made, because I don't regret any decisions that I've made. Because I can't change it."

Johnny Benson could easily be the guy next door who somehow found the big time. For 20 years, Benson's father raced throughout the Midwest, while his only son built race cars for the family business. Benson never had that burning desire to drive. But at age 19, his dad's seat opened up.

"He finally decided he was going to retire, and that was it," Benson said. "He left it at that. But over the winter I got to thinking, 'Man someone has to race for the business of some sort.' I was assuming that was going to be me."

Benson raced through the ranks -- ASA champion in 1993; Busch Series rookie of the year in 1994, and Busch Series champion in 1995. Winston Cup racing was the next step and Benson was the man many teams wanted, including some big names offering high-profile, but pressure-packed, rides.

"It was like, man I don't know if I was ready for that or not ready for that," Benson said. "I wasn't sure what I wanted, and those are do-or-die situations. If you went into a huge multi-car operation and didn't do go, to me I think you are pretty much done. Maybe I viewed that wrong, I don't know. But that's why I chose Bahari."

Choosing Bahari Racing to debut in Winston Cup in 199? seemed like the right move for Benson. "Small-town Johnny" found a small team that felt like family. In 1996, Benson won more money than any previous rookie in Winston Cup history. And one year later, Benson posted eight top-10 finishes and missed a trip to New York City by a points -- finishing 11th in the final standings.

But during the 1997 season, Benson's relationship with Bahari Racing started to crumble when Roush Racing approached him. The buy-out of his contract was a personal and painful legal battle.

"Those were some tough times, in hindsight maybe I should have stayed (with Bahari) and continued on," Benson said. "It was better there I think than we all realized at the time."

Benson's talent never flourished while with Roush Racing, finishing 20th and 28th in points. The team struggled from start to finish.

"I don't know whether it came down to none of us being comfortable with the communication situation or if it was just the way they ran their business," Benson said. "But twice I walked into the shop and had a new crew chief and didn't know about it until I got there and the guy was already on the job.

"But that's what happened and I wasn't comfortable with the situation and needed to do something about it."

Where those two years frustrating?

"I rather say it was a learning situation. But it was frustrating. But I wasn't the only one frustrated. If you ask Jack (Roush), I'm sure he'd say the same thing. Maybe he wanted to see me go, maybe he wanted to see me stay. I was in the same boat, but somebody finally had to say something and it was me, unfortunately. So, I'm sure I look like the bad guy on that decision. But they didn't bail on me, I probably more bailed on them."

When he made the decision to leave the Roush Racing stable, Benson basically had nowhere to go as the 2000 season approached. But he said he was content to take the year off if the right situation didn't arrive prior to Daytona.

Benson wasn't desperate, but the No. 45 team was in 1999. After battling just to make races for a year and a half, Tim Beverly needed a cornerstone to build on in the new millennium. Despite no sponsorship, Benson signed on.

"I saw the attitude that they had toward racing, and that is what this sport is all about," Benson said. "I'm sure we don't have a third of the budget a lot of teams have -- I know that -- but it's about people."

After a headline-grabbing start in the Daytona 500 and a second at Bristol, Benson's faith and foresight seem rewarded. A lot of people are surprised at what this team has done -- and what it still might do.

"I think we can win -- as a driver I think we can," Benson said. "As a team, I think they are that close to make it happen. Our goal is to win a race and finish in the top 10 in points. It's a fairly steep goal, but I think we can make it happen."

Just how well is the No. 10 Lycos team running? Despite missing the Atlanta race, Benson is 18th in driver points in just eight starts. He's ahead of 14 drivers who have started all nine races. Benson has two top-10s, the same number of top-10s he had all of last season.

Next week the Winston Cup Series is headed to California looking for the 10th different winner in 10 races. A challenge the 10 team hopes to answer.

Ask Bill Weber