Danica's coach, Johnny Benson Jr., looks to push her to next level
Benson, a former NASCAR driver, became Danica's coach earlier this year
Thus far, he's been impressed with Danica's consistency and determination
He says a premature move to Sprint Cup could be detrimental to her career
MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- Johnny Benson Jr. has had several titles throughout his racing career: Nationwide Series champion, Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year and Camping World Truck Series champion.
But his latest role is a little different.
Benson got a call from Danica Patrick's crew chief at JR Motorsports, Tony Eury Jr., before the Daytona race in February. While Patrick had displayed potential behind the wheel of the Nationwide Chevrolet, she needed some coaching to help her move to the next level.
That is where Benson comes in. He jumped at the opportunity to work with the IZOD IndyCar Series driver as she learns the difficult sport of stock car racing. Benson has also been helping fellow female driver Joanna Long for five races this season.
"I don't look at it as Danica's driving coach; I look at it as helping somebody excel in the sport," Benson told SI.com. "It's pretty cool working with her. It's a little different job for me to do but I've enjoyed doing it. It's the only way at this point in time I can get back to the sport and help some people [accelerate] their learning curve with this style of cars and tracks."
Benson brings much experience to his role. After winning the Late Model championship at Berlin Raceway in Marne, Mich., the Grand Rapids native 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 series championship the next year.
The next step was NASCAR's highest level -- what is now the Sprint Cup Series -- where he won Rookie of the Year in 1996 and drove to his only Cup victory at Rockingham, N.C. in 2002. Three years later, Benson joined the Trucks Series where he accumulated 14 wins, 87 top-10s and five poles. He was the Trucks champion in 2008.
On June 13, 2009 Benson was burned in a crash in an ISMA Supermodified at Berlin Raceway -- his home track in Michigan. He also suffered a broken collarbone, separated shoulder, three broken ribs, bruised lungs, a fractured wrist and third-degree burns on one elbow. Although Benson fully recovered, his opportunities to compete in NASCAR diminished. With his wealth of experience however, he has plenty of knowledge to share with new drivers such as Patrick and Long.
Benson worked with Patrick on race day at Daytona in February but it was the Nationwide Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway where the duo got a chance to work together for the entire weekend. Patrick went on to score her best-ever NASCAR finish with a fourth-place in Vegas. It was also the highest finish by a female driver in NASCAR since Sara Christensen finished fifth in Pittsburgh in 1949.
"She finished fourth at Vegas and theoretically if the fuel mileage hadn't come into play she was going to finish eighth or ninth which is still a good run," Benson recalled. "The fuel mileage deal boosted her to fourth which was great. She just needs to get accustomed to these cars and get through the point where this is what you need for practice and this is what you need for the race."
Benson also worked with Patrick at Bristol Motor Speedway before she parked her Nationwide car to begin the IndyCar Series season in March. She returned to Nationwide on June 4 at Chicagoland Speedway, where she finished 10th, and she made another breakthrough last Friday at Daytona when she led for 13 laps and was a contender for the win before a multi-car crash sabotaged her chances on the last lap. She would finish, once again, in 10th place.
Patrick credits her coach with helping her learn and improve behind the stock car wheel.
"The opportunity to work with Johnny Benson was great for me," Patrick said. "Not only does he have tremendous insight as a former NASCAR driver, but he's also raced at a number of tracks that I competed on during the first part of the season. He's definitely [given] me a lot of insight that I was able to apply behind the wheel."
Benson is impressed with Patrick's willingness to listen and her determination and skill when it comes to driving a stock car.
"She is determined and she wants to run well," Benson said. "At times she will get frustrated when she thinks the car is pretty good for practice and then they get in the race and are not as good as they want to be. That is the part where I came in to tell here 'You need to have it this way in practice so you are good on race day.' Part of that is a struggle. When we've seen open-wheel people come in they don't like the cars real loose. I understand that because in an IndyCar if you get those things loose on an oval track, you wreck, and in a stock car you don't. You have to be able to try to find that balance of what you can get away with on the free side in practice to make it good in the race."
Despite her lack of comfort with the stock car, Patrick has shown great consistency.
"The one thing that's impressive is she is very good at running the exact same line every lap," Benson said. "I've worked with other people; I've worked with rookies. One time they go into the corner they are right on the line, the next lap they are five feet from the line, the next time they are five lengths deeper than what they went in before. With Danica it's very consistent. She turns off the wall at the same spot every time. She gets off the gas at the same spot every time. I was impressed with that."
Patrick is adamant that she has not decided what she will do in 2012. Currently, she runs the entire IndyCar schedule for Andretti Autosport with a limited Nationwide Series schedule for JR Motorsports. Patrick could leave IndyCar for a full-time Nationwide schedule in 2012, while maintaining the ability to run in the Indianapolis 500, and then move up to Sprint Cup in 2013, but the driver has denied that deal is in place.
Sources within the IndyCar paddock have told SI.com they believe Patrick will likely leave the series at the end of this season, but Patrick continues to say a final decision won't come until much later this season.
Her driving coach believes she needs to spend more than one full season in Nationwide before making the jump to Cup.
"The struggle, I think, is she wants to go right to Cup and that's a bad move," Benson said. "She needs to run the Nationwide Series for two years and then go to Cup. I know that is probably not going to happen. I think for her career and her age she needs to run Nationwide ... to really get a handle on what is going on because that next step going into Cup is such a huge step.
"I think the more knowledge and experience she has going into Cup will benefit her career more than getting there sooner. ... I think that is a crucial step for her."
Benson warns a move to Sprint Cup too soon could have a detrimental impact on Patrick's progress as a stock car driver and could prematurely halt her career if success doesn't come quickly.
"If you make that jump too early," Benson warned, "and have three or four years with no success, it is very difficult to maintain a ride. ... I've seen a lot of guys try to run one year of Nationwide and move up and really, really struggle and I've seen some people make it. It's going to be undetermined if that is the right thing to do."
Although Patrick came close to victory at last Friday's restrictor-plate race, where circumstances determine the winner more than the driver behind the wheel, Benson believes Las Vegas and Bristol are a better gauge of Patrick's talent as a NASCAR driver.
But, does she have the ability to win at this?
"I don't know," Benson admitted. "I think it is hard to say. She has the determination to do well at it. Right now she is with a team capable of winning races. The next step is to figure it out and make it happen. It's very tough even for somebody who has experience to win races in Nationwide. There are a couple of key elements there that are a plus. The negatives are she needs to be there week in and week out.
"To me she ran an outstanding race [at Bristol] until she got into [a wreck with] Ryan Truex. ... Walking out of there I felt good about it and pretty proud of how she did the first time there."
And that is high praise from the man Patrick calls coach.
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