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 airtime 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
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
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO