Benson beats Martin to win Pop Secret 400

Posted: Monday, November 04, 2002

ROCKINGHAM, N.C. -- Johnny Benson needs a new nickname. ''The Best Driver to Never win a Race'' no longer fits.

Benson ended one of the longest winless streaks in NASCAR on Sunday, holding off Mark Martin to win the Pop Secret 400 for his first victory in 226 starts.

''I thought for a couple of years that I'd never get a win,'' Benson said. ''I was always going to be the best guy who never won a race.''

Benson led the final 28 laps but had to battle Martin over the final dozen laps at North Carolina Speedway. Martin, in the thick of the Winston Cup championship chase, was racing for the win and several times drove his Ford onto the bumper of Benson's Pontiac.

When he couldn't bump Benson out of the way, Martin tried to pass him in the lower grooves of the race track.

None of it worked and the 39-year-old Benson beat him to the finish line by 0.261 seconds to become the fifth first-time winner this season.

''I'm glad for Johnny, he's a whale of a race car driver,'' Martin said. ''It's a shame it's taken him this long, but I'm happy for him.

''I put a lot of pressure on him there at the end and he made no mistakes. That's what I was hoping for, but I was not expecting it because I've raced Johnny a lot.''

Afterward, Martin's No. 6 Ford failed inspection because the left-front springs did not meet the minimum number of coils. NASCAR will punish the team next week, and the standard penalty this season has been a deduction of 25 championship points.

That would be a huge blow to Martin, who sliced Tony Stewart's lead to 87 points Sunday.

Kurt Busch, who came into the event on a two-race winning streak, led 105 laps but faded and finished third.

Busch wasn't disappointed with his finish even though he had one of the stronger cars in the race.

''I can't think of two better guys to lose to than Johnny Benson and Mark Martin,'' he said.

Benson knew he had fuel issues to contend with over the final portion of the race because crew chief James Ince told him there was a chance he could run out of gas. And he did -- but it happened during his celebratory doughnuts along the frontstretch.

''James said it was going to be within a half of a lap, but he just didn't know what side of the finish line it's on,'' Benson said. ''Well, I ran out trying to get to the pit, but it doesn't matter at that point in time.''

Jeff Burton was fourth, giving Roush Racing three Fords in the top four.

Jeff Gordon finished fifth in a Chevrolet, Mike Skinner was sixth and was followed by Bobby Labonte and Matt Kenseth, the fourth Roush entry. Ricky Craven and Jeff Green rounded out the top 10.

Stewart came into the event with a 146-point lead over Martin but had handling problems early in the race, and his Pontiac fell a lap down early. He fought with the car the entire race and finished 14th.

He was angry when he exited his Pontiac, stopping only to say the car was the worst he had ever driven.

''Most of the day, he kept his head and did a great job,'' crew chief Greg Zipadelli said. ''He did what he had to do. We didn't do as good of a job as we probably needed to do adjusting early. We tried, but everything we did was wrong.''

Jimmie Johnson, who was 150 points behind, had a loose wheel that dropped him 12 laps down and he finished 37th. He's now 219 points behind Stewart, probably too great a margin to overcome with just two races left in the season.

''We knew we had a wheel loose, and when it was loose it destroyed the studs and we could never tighten the wheel back up,'' Johnson said. ''So we had to come in and change the whole hub assembly.

''I'm disappointed. We had a good car and were going to have a solid day. Stewart was struggling. Mark Martin had a great day, but we would have definitely made up some ground. It's just one of them deals.''

Benson, meanwhile, came close to victory three weeks ago at Martinsville Speedway, trying to run down Busch before settling for second place. He felt that clean racing in that chase probably played a part in Busch and Martin repaying the favor in Rockingham.

''Hopefully, Martinsville showed that I do it clean and everyone else would do it back to me,'' he said. ''Mark's the best guy out here and he raced me hard, but he was fair.''

Ryan Newman, the rookie who started from the pole, led two times for 41 laps but finished 23rd. Rusty Wallace, his teammate, finished 27th.

Wallace has just two more chances to win this season and stretch his streak to 17 straight years with at least one victory. That would break the NASCAR record he shares with Ricky Rudd.



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