Though his NASCAR days are behind him, Johnny Benson Jr. at 58, no plans to slow down. When asked how many more years he can race, he replied with a huge smile.
“About four years ago — but I’m still going to do it,” Benson told NASCAR.com. “Sometimes I feel like, ‘Dang, I’m getting too old to go that fast, because these (Super Modifieds) are some of the fastest cars in the world.’ A lot of things I do and do are for fun.
“Yes, I am very competitive, but I still understand that I am getting to the age to compete against these people who are very, very good at what they do. … I feel like I’m the old man trying to do things. But at the same time, I’m still pretty good at what I do.”
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Benson has scheduled at least eight Super Modified events in the 2022 season, primarily in his home state of Michigan, and in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Rather than racing, Benson has spent much more of his life building race cars for others, most notably over the past 15 years in the Outlaws Super Late Models and other Late Model series.
He grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the son of Johnny Benson Sr., who was known throughout the Midwest as the owner of Benson Speed Equipment, which built race cars primarily for Late Model competition.
The younger Benson was steeped in his father’s business from a very early age, which included building his first race car at the age of 13.
But Johnny Jr. never had the desire to get behind the wheel and race. It wasn’t until his father decided to retire that the younger Benson was thrown behind the wheel of necessity.
“I didn’t start running when I was 5 or 10 years old,” Benson told NASCAR.com. “I was 19. I was very old to start racing. My father built racing components and I built my first customer car at the age of 13. That’s what I did; that’s what I liked to do.
“I never thought about racing until my father decided to retire. At the time, I was 18 and 19 years old, and I didn’t have that desire to do that. I loved building cars, I loved that part. But when my dad retired, I thought, ‘Well, who’s going to race for the company?’”
Johnny Jr. didn’t have to look far. He found his team’s next driver while staring in the mirror.
He would build a successful career in Late Models and Outlaws, primarily at the 7/16th mile Berlin Raceway, his home track, in Marne, Michigan.
Inspired by other Midwest drivers such as the late Alan Kulwicki, Dick Trickle and others, Benson decided to chase fortune and fame in NASCAR, starting with the Xfinity Series (then Busch Series). It wasn’t long before he found success and took the Rookie of the Year award in 1994. He then went on to win the championship in 1995 in just his second full-time season in the series, taking two wins, 12 top fives and 19 top fives. 10 finishes in 26 starts.
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“(Winning the Busch Series Championship) surprised me,” said Benson. “The fact that I finished sixth my first year and won the championship the second year was just mind-boggling to me that this was so far out of my domain. I am of course very proud of it.”
After that title season in 1995, Benson moved up to the NASCAR Cup ranks, competing full-time for eight seasons. But success wasn’t easy: he took just one win (including the checkered flag in the 2001 non-points Winston Open), 18 top fives and 58 top-10 finishes in 274 starts.
When asked who he was with the toughest drivers he ever dealt in paint with, Benson didn’t hesitate for a moment in his answer.
“Dale Earnhardt, the best of the best with a great team and was just fierce on the track,” he said. “Then you had Tony Stewart, Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon.
“Those are the guys I looked up to when I came here. They were the fierce competitors I saw on TV. They were a lot of fun to talk to, but on the racetrack, oh my God, it was business.
“Those were the guys I looked at and said to myself, ‘That’s my goal, to be them, to beat them.’ Yeah I had my days where we could beat them but not on a consistent basis That’s what you look forward to That’s what you do when you (go to the Cup series) and you have those guys who are at the top standing of the kingdom.
‘That’s your goal. That’s what my father taught me, that there is only one round that brings money, there is only one round that brings points. That’s your goal, it’s not to dominate, it’s to try and win the race.”
Lured to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series midway through the 2004 season, Benson would find the kind of success he’d long aspired to by winning 14 races (all between 2006 and 2008), along with 58 top fives and 90 top-10 finishes in all. in just 138 starts. He was voted the series’ most popular driver for three consecutive seasons (2006-2008).
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Most of his career in Trucks had been winning the Championship in 2008, making Benson only the second driver to earn titles in both the Busch and Truck series at the time (the other being Greg Biffle). Since then, Austin Dillon has also won an Xfinity and Truck Championship, while Kyle Busch, Bobby Labonte, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Chase Elliott have won titles in Cup and Xfinity, but not in Trucks.
Another striking aspect of Benson’s second championship was that there were 13 years between his two titles. In comparison, NASCAR Hall of Famer Terry Labonte won two Cup championships 12 years apart (1984 and 1996).
He is also one of only 36 drivers to have won at least one race in each of NASCAR’s top three series.
While Benson enjoyed his 18 season career in NASCAR, he admits he regrets: “That I was not able to achieve more success in the Cup Series, I only won one race, but we had a lot of great runs, I finished second (three) times and it seemed like we were always kind of like there. But in that category it just didn’t work for me.”
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Since he last hung up his NASCAR fire suit in 2010, Benson has stayed in the racing game, as it were, continuing to build primarily Late Model and Super Late Model race cars for customers in the United States and Canada.
But, like many entrepreneurs, Benson suffered from the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, leading him to focus on construction and welding projects for non-racing customers.
“Building extra-judicial cars for asphalt, that’s what I love to do, that’s my passion,” said Benson. “Now it’s just more opportunities and goals that people I know will bring to me saying, ‘Hey, are you interested in doing this job?’ I look at it and go, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.’”
In addition to his Busch and Truck Series championships, Benson also won titles in the Outlaw Late Model Championship and ASA circuits (1993).
“People always ask me which one is better?” said Benson. “I say to them, ‘Look, they’re all great, but very different.
“It was all about wanting to win races,” Benson said. “I’ve won a few championships and I’ve enjoyed my time there, meeting a lot of great people, a lot of great racers.
“People don’t realize that when I came down to NASCAR and got the chance to race in the Busch Series, I was 30 years old. That’s not happening today. At 30 people are drawn out.
“So to come here and have the opportunity and then turn around and win a championship at age 32 was amazing. And to still run near the top 10 in the Cup Series when I’m over thirty. When I was in my 40s, I win a Truck Series championship at 45, it’s pretty satisfying.
“I shouldn’t have been there, I should never have had that opportunity at my age, but to get in there and do that is pretty cool. I’ve enjoyed my career, but things like this will never happen.
“We are one of the few racers who had poles and won races in every series and won two of the three championships in NASCAR’s top-class series. That is very unusual.”
Even to this day when he races in a Super Modified somewhere, Benson still approaches the sport the same way he did during his NASCAR career.
“I’ve always thought of it as a job, I’ve always thought of it as a competition,” Benson said. “Your job is to go out and do your job. I went and did my job and went home.”
The Johnny Benson Jr. file:
* Age: 58
* Residence: Grand Rapids, Michigan (now resides in Mooresville, North Carolina).
* In person: Wife is Nicole. Johnny has two daughters and Nicole has a daughter and son.
* NASCAR Cup career: 274 races, one win, 18 top-five and 58 top-10 finishes. Also two poles. Best Season Finish: 11th (1997 and 2001).
* NASCAR Xfinity Series Career: 91 races, three wins, 19 top-five and 35 top-10 finishes. Also a pole. Best Season Finish: 1st (1995).
* NASCAR Camping World Truck Series career: 138 races, 14 wins, 58 top-five, 90 top-10 finishes. Also five poles. Best Season Finish: 1st (2008).
Veteran motorsport writer Jerry Bonkowski writes some Where Are They Now? stories this year for NASCAR.com. See stories he’s already done Mike Bliss, Doug Richert, Brian Scott, Robby Gordon, Ricky Craven, Terry Labonte, Kenny Wallace, Trevor Bayne, Ken Schrader, Shawna Robinson, Sam Hornish Jr., Bobby Labonte, Greg Bifflea, Ricky Ruddi, Darrell Waltrip, Mark Martin, Marcos Ambrosius and John Paul Montoya. Follow Jerry on Twitter @JerryBonkowski.