He was from Grand Rapids, Mich., not exactly a bastion of big-time stock car drivers.
But Johnny Benson Jr. got a chance to run with NASCAR and made the most of it.
He finished sixth in the-then Busch Grand National Series in 1994 and won the championship in 1995. Then, it was on to Cup as a rookie in 1996.
In his rookie year in Cup, Benson made his mark in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis, leading 70 of the 160 laps around the 2 ½-mile oval.
“We just had a bad pit stop, but we had the opportunity to win,” he said.
Even though he was a regular TV viewer of the Indianapolis 500, some of the features of the Speedway surprised him when he showed up with his helmet.
“It was really, really big and very different than anything I’d ever run,” Benson said. “You kind of got there. There was a fair amount of people on the frontstretch, and that made it seem narrow. As the weekend went on, the track got smaller and smaller as more people showed up. There was plenty of racing room, but it just seemed smaller.”
He made eight starts in the Brickyard 400, finishing eighth in 1996, seventh in 1997 and third in 2001, the latter his best.
Even though he was a Midwesterner, he had little knowledge of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway before his first race in the driver’s seat at the Brickyard.
“Once when I was in my teens, I went to the PRI show (in downtown Indianapolis),” he said. “I sneaked over to the (IMS Hall of Fame) museum. As a kid, I always watched the Indianapolis 500. It might have been cool to do (the ‘500’), but I really never got the opportunity.”
Benson noted he kept track of Michigan connections while following the “500.”
“I watched Johnny Rutherford, Tom Sneva, the Unsers and Andrettis,” he said. “But Gordon Johncock was from Michigan and Scott Brayton was from Coldwater and had Amway, which is based in Grand Rapids, as a sponsor.”
Benson’s career as a driver has come full circle. He no longer runs Cup but still races late models and supermodifieds. Benson, 49, resides in Charlotte, N.C., builds late models and still makes the occasional trip to his “home track” of Berlin Raceway in Marne, Mich., just outside Grand Rapids.
“I’ve built cars since I was 13 years old,” he said. “It’s a business, but I mainly do it just to help people and keep busy.
“(In Cup), they wanted younger kids and want more money, and I understand that. I’m at an age where I don’t want to do those long races. I like the late models and supermodifieds, where you can go practice, qualify and race (on the same day), and that’s it.”