During the Speed Weeks before this year's Daytona 500, Johnny Benson's car stood out. It wasn't the Pontiac's performance that attracted attention or the 36-year-old guy behind the wheel. Rather it was the fact that in a sea of logo-covered, brightly colored stock cars, Benson's ride was as bare and white as winter in his hometown of Grand Rapids.
Driving a white car is kind of like wearing a Montreal Expos jersey: It tells the world that you're one of the have-nots, as in, "I have not a sponsor."
The funny thing is, Benson, the 1996 Winston Cup Rookie of the Year, chose to put himself in this situation. For the last two seasons he was a driver in Jack Roush's five-car stable. But Benson, who was 11th in the points standings with Bahari Racing in '97, slid to 20th in '98 and 28th in '99. "I'm sure Jack wasn't happy," he says. "I know I wasn't happy. Our performance was basically terrible, and somebody needed to do something." So Benson bought out the last two years of his deal with Roush, signed with Tim Beverley's fledgling one-car operation and rolled into Daytona in that white car. "But it was a fast white car," Benson says with a grin.
Beverley convinced Lycos, an Internet search-engine company, of that fact, and at nine o'clock on the night before the Daytona 500, Lycos signed on as primary sponsor. The investment paid off immediately. Benson, with a makeshift Lycos decal on the hood of his Pontiac, had the lead with five laps to go, giving his new sponsor national TV air-time and putting a serious scare in race favorite Dale Jarrett, who took the lead for good on a restart with four laps left.
Benson says that when he was with Roush, his crew lacked chemistry but that he and new crew chief James Ince have clicked from the get-go. "It's kind of like dating a girl," says Ince. "You can tell in the first five minutes if the chemistry is there." Of course, no relationship will succeed unless the parties have shared interests, and both Benson and Ince are lifelong garage dwellers. Benson's father, John, who raced stock cars for 28 years, had a race shop. When Johnny was seven, John began entrusting him with a variety of tasks, up to and including welding, and Johnny has been working on cars ever since.
The car he now works on has a new blue-and-black paint scheme and spends a lot of time running near the front of the pack. Benson's two top six finishes this season, including his career-best second-place showing on March 26 at Bristol Motor Speedway, are two more than he had all of last year. "Our goal is to finish in the top 10 in points and win a race or two," says Benson. A reasonable goal now, but just two months ago such talk would have been written off as the fruit of an overly colorful imagination.