The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of Johnny Benson

Kelly CrandallSenior Writer IAugust 11, 2008

The year was 1996 and a young man by the name of Johnny Benson was ready to move into NASCAR's top series. Just the year before he had captured the NASCAR Nationwide, the Busch Series, Championship after two wins and nineteen top ten finishes.

With momentum and a helmet full of talent, he signed with the number 30 Pennzoil team which was owned by Bahari Racing. But Benson never had the success that he enjoyed in his Nationwide days. From 1996 to 1997 Benson would win two pole awards but no wins and had sixteen top tens. He finished twenty-first in points in '96 and eleventh in points in '97.

He was also the 1996 NASCAR Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year, and that combined with Benson's personality could have been what attracted owner Jack Roush to hire him to drive the number 26 General Mills/Cheerios Ford Taurus.

Now with Roush Racing all the parts where in place for Benson to break into the win column, but instead his career began to break apart. It started by the team missing the Daytona 500 and compiling nineteen finishes of twentieth or worst, his best finish of the year being ninth resulting in a points finish of twenty-first.

The following year, 1999, was one of Benson's worst on the Cup circuit. After numerous crew chief changes and finishing twenty-third in points, Benson and Roush Racing decided to end both their misery's when Benson bought out of his contract and left the company.

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With the struggles at Roush behind him, he turned toward 2000 to shape a new identity. An identity of what many will remember Johnny Benson as a Sprint Cup driver. His new team was the number 10 white Valvoline car owned by MB2 Motorsports. Benson nearly pulled the upset in the season opening and Superbowl of Motorsports, the Daytona 500. He held the lead for 39 laps but with ten laps remaining the caution flew and during the final four laps he faded to twelfth position as Dale Jarrett took the win.

However it appeared his career was back on track after having seven top ten finishes and ending the year eleventh in points.

He would back that up in 2001 by finishing eleventh in points again with fourteen top tens.

But 2002 was finally Johnny Benson's year.

He may have finished twenty-eighth in points with only seven top tens but he was able to accomplish something that eluded him for nearly seven years: he finally visited victory lane.

It took 226 races but on November 3 in Rockingham, North Carolina he passed former teammate Mark Martin to lead the final twenty-eight laps. As Benson crossed the start finish line under the checkered flag, crew chief James Ince, told him, "It was a long time coming, Johnny Benson, but you got your win."

Finally, the nice guy had won. Mark Martin couldn't be happier to finish second. "I'm very happy to see Johnny win. He is a tremendous race car driver. It's a shame it's taken this long, but I'm happy for him."

In victory lane Benson couldn't believe it, "I thought for a couple of years that I'd never get a win. I was always going to be the best guy who never won a race."

The 2003 season marked the final season that Benson would compete full time in the Sprint Cup Series when he finished twenty-fourth in points and was replaced by Scott Riggs.

That's when the turn around and life changing happened for Benson. He was hired by Bill Davis Racing to drive the number 23 in the Craftsman Truck Series, where he rolled off eight top tens in twenty-five races. The following year he had ten top tens and finished tenth in points. Even going from stock cars to trucks, Benson had caught on quick. 

During that time he ran four Nationwide Series races and three Cup races.

At Michigan in 2006 he won his first Truck race leading 31 of 102 laps and became the seventeenth driver to win in all three of NASCAR's top series.

After that Benson easily rolled off four more wins to end the year second in points behind Champion Todd Bodine despite having more wins, top fives and top tens.

Last season Benson was once again back behind the wheel of the 23 truck and chasing the championship. He won four times and had nineteen top tens but ended the year third in points.

However, the 2008 season may bring a new image and identity for Johnny Benson and his fans: NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series Champion.

This past weekend, the fifteenth race on the schedule, Benson captured his fourth win of the year and third in a row. With ten races left he has a 45 point lead over Ron Hornaday.

Johnny Benson is back on track. In 274 races on the Sprint Cup level he only managed one win and 58 top tens with two poles and in the Nationwide Series in 91 starts he managed three wins and 35 top tens with one pole.

However in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series he has excelled. In 116 starts he has 74 top tens, 48 top fives, 5 poles and 13 career victories. This is where Johnny Benson belongs, back on top.

Gone are the days of struggling to make races or finding sponsorships. He raced hard and clean to make his name and career about being the nice guy. He's gone from down in the pits to victory lane and I can't see anyone not being happy to see the nice guy hoist the biggest trophy in his career come three months from now in South Florida.

Johnny's probably just happy to still be racing and certainly to be winning.