Work in Sports
On the lead lap
Secret to Benson's success: The top-15 finish
By Ryan Smithson, CNNSI.com
Much has been made this year of the success of Johnny Benson.
Aside from the inconsistency of Jeff Gordon this year, the fact that Benson sits 15th in points may be the biggest surprise of the year.
We all know the story by now. Benson, at age 37 and dumped by Jack Roush, hooks up with the unsponsored Tyler Jet Motorsports outfit and nearly wins the Daytona 500.
In August, MB2 Motorsports purchased Benson's team. Clearly, Benson has a solid future -- one that was not assured when the season opened in February.
However, Benson slid so far off the Winston Cup radar screen that many people think that he has never tasted success. This is not true.
The fact remains that 1997, not 2000, remains Benson's career year. Benson was in his second season of Winston Cup, and he finished just one point out of the top 10 in standings.
Benson drove for Chuck Rider that year -- a small, single-car team that used the inferior Pontiac Grand Prix -- a car that did not exactly set the series on fire in the mid-1990s. Despite his inexperience and other disadvantages, Benson posted eight top-10 finishes while failing to finish just twice.
Benson nearly won the Daytona 500 in 2000, but he also nearly won the Brickyard 400 in 1996. The Michigander led 66 laps that hot Saturday before fading to a sixth-place finish. He clearly had the car that was the class of the field that day. Benson then returned to Indianapolis and finished seventh in 1997.
Benson completed more laps in 1997 than anyone except Dale Jarrett. Benson had such a solid season that he was signed to drive for Jack Roush - one of the most revered teams in the garage. Although Roush has not won a title, his cars and almost always a threat to win every week, with 45 wins since 1998.
But Benson suffered two horrific seasons with Roush. For some reason, Benson could not finish races for Roush -- he had five DNFs in 1998 and four in 1999. All this came despite working with Steve Hmiel, one of the most respected and hard-working crew chiefs in the garage.
Benson enjoyed success in the first half of the 1998 season - he scored five top-10 finishes in a row early in the season. He had just two in the second half.
Things got worse for Benson in 1999 -- his top-five finishes went from three to zero, and he plummeted from 17th to 28th in the standings.
Benson finished seventh last weekend in Richmond for his third top-10 of the season. His top-10 totals this season are not impressive -- but his consistency is, as Benson has finished 26th or worse only three times. In 1999, he finished 26th or worse an astounding 17 times.