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Nextel Cup Series




Saturday, January 3

Benson: 'I've invested my money wisely'
By Mike Massaro
ESPN

Mike Massaro It's the New Year, but Johnny Benson is still looking for a resolution.

Benson, who was informed in October that he would be replaced by Scott Riggs aboard the MBV Motorsports/Valvoline Pontiac (now Chevrolet), is still without a ride for 2004.

"Who knows?" said Benson when asked how his search was progressing. "I'm not sure where we're at. Right now I don't have a lot going on."

Toward the end of last season, PPI Motorsports owner Cal Wells said that, sponsorship permitting, he would start a second team and Benson would be the leading candidate to drive. But when sponsorship fell through, the second team and deal with Benson were put on hold.

"I'm still talking to (PPI)," Benson said. "I'm still thinking that's where I'd like to end up."

But for now Benson is in driver limbo. With mandatory testing for the Daytona 500 beginning this week, time is running out if he hopes to secure something for opening day. Nonetheless, the eight-year veteran is showing few signs of stress.

"I'm fine," Benson said, laughing. "It's just one of them deals, you find out too late in the season to do anything about it. So there's nothing I can do about it, I can't control it. So you just deal with it, go from there and see what happens."

Technically, Benson still has a year left on his contract with MBV Motorsports. This, in theory, means he would continue being paid while standing on the sideline. That alleviates some anxiety, but like any true racer Benson is not primarily concerned with money.

"Obviously if I don't have a ride there's still (money), but that isn't what I care about," Benson said. "The part I care about is having a ride and I'd like to be in a fairly decent ride."

Johnny Benson
Johnny Benson has no prospects for '04 but hopes for a part-time ride or a Busch offer.

However, decent rides with open seats are scarce. This reality has forced Benson to consider other options. One possibility would be joining an established team as a test driver. Benson has also entertained the thought of returning to the Busch Series, where he won the 1995 title.

"If a Busch deal came along, one where you could go win the championship, I'd be interested in doing that," Benson said.

For now though, that opportunity has not materialized. And while Benson hasn't completely given up on the upcoming season, he remains realistic. "I think if I have something for 2004 it's going to be a limited deal," he admits.

Benson isn't the only driver without a ride right now. Todd Bodine, Steve Park, Dave Blaney and Jimmy Spencer each ran full time in 2003 but are, at the very least, questionable for 2004.

There are explanations for this season's driver turnover. One, an influx of young talent has displaced several veterans. And two, the slumping economy has hurt sponsorship. Roush Racing is still seeking a sponsor for Jeff Burton and in December Dale Earnhardt Inc. announced the No. 1 car, which has competed full time since 1998, will only run a partial schedule in 2004.

"You got a company like DEI who can't get a sponsor for that car and they closed that team, that's tough," Benson said. "That's showing that the economy does have an effect on the sport."

Furthermore, the ripple effect of racing economics has changed the criteria by which owners are now selecting drivers, presenting another obstacle for Benson. "I think some people can bring sponsors," he said. "I would be in a ride today if I had a sponsor."

But Benson doesn't have a sponsor, or a ride for that matter. At age 37, he's at a career crossroads.

"I think it's just a temporary setback," Benson said. "I don't foresee it bringing my career to a close. Maybe it does. If it does, it does. I've invested my money wisely."

So for the time being, Benson's attitude remains positive.

"I'm gonna enjoy some of my time off," Benson said, "see what the kids are doing and go race my late model and go have some fun."

On the bright side, that's something most Nextel Cup drivers only wished they could afford to do.

Mike Massaro covers NASCAR for ESPN and ESPN.com.

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