Over the course of his career, Johnny Benson, Jr. found success in just about every level of racing he competed in.
He won the ASA National Tour title in 1993 before making the jump to what’s now the NASCAR Xfinity Series full-time in 1994 and winning the series title one year later. Benson also earned a Truck Series title in 2008 driving for Bill Davis Racing, becoming one of only three drivers to have won titles in both the Xfinity and Truck Series.
After that championship season in 2008, the Grand Rapids, MI driver only competed in 13 more Truck races before dropping out of NASCAR completely. Benson has been heavily involved in the short track racing scene in the decade since his final NASCAR starts.
Benson ran the full ISMA Supermodified season in 2012, with a third-place points result to show for it. He then ran the full Outlaw Super Late Model season at his home track, Berlin Raceway, the next year. Benson scored a win and competed for the track championship that year before coming up short. He also helped jumpstart the career of Carson Hocevar at Berlin Raceway, where he won a Super Late Model feature in 2016 as a 13-year-old.
More recently, Benson’s short track racing efforts have been focused on the Supermodified side with one of the top runners in the discipline. His last start came in 2018 at the Hy-Miler 100 at Sandusky Speedway before taking last season off.
Benson had cut back on his racing following back surgery, but still occasionally competed in vintage sports car racing during 2019.
“I’m still semi-involved with Supermodifieds with Brad Lichty and Mike Lichty and I was scheduled to run a couple races last year but I had some back surgery. Racing’s pretty hard on your back over the years so I went and got it fixed and I didn’t participate,” Benson told Speed51.com. “I did do charity races for SVRA, which is the road course stuff. I did Indianapolis and VIR for them, which I probably shouldn’t have done the Indy one but I did anyway. By the end of the year I was in pretty good shape.”
Benson remained heavily involved in short track racing throughout his NASCAR career, both racing and building Outlaw Super Late Models while also competing in select Template Super Late Model and later on in his career, Supermodified races. He won the Kalamazoo Klash in his first try in 2006 and won an ISMA race at Seekonk in 2010, just over a year after a Supermodified wreck at Berlin sent him to the hospital.
“When I was racing in the Busch Series and the Cup Series I would still go up to Berlin Raceway, my home track and race on the weekends that I could. I still had my own car, my hauler and stuff. I did a fair amount of those plus Kalamazoo Speedway for the Klash and stuff like that,” he said.
“I’ve always been involved in that and I’ve always done that throughout my entire career but it just got where the expense and racing full-time, I just kept my investments to keep me on the normal living aspect of it, didn’t want to burn it all up on racing. That’s when I decided to do some racing with Brad Lichty and Mike Lichty with the Supermodified because I could go help and run and it wasn’t a huge cost to me.”
As his days behind the wheel have slowed down, so has his time as a chassis builder.
“I did slow down on that, I kind of quit building cars about three years ago, the customers are just a little bit different today than what it used to be. I was doing Outlaw Late Model cars, which has been slowly been on a decline for some reason. There’s a couple customers I’ll take care of if they need it but outside of what I’ve got I’m not taking any outside, new people on anything of that nature.”
Dropping into the short track scene allowed Benson a bit of a getaway from the day-to-day stress that comes with running for a championship in the NASCAR ranks.
“It seems weird, when you’re doing it for a job, don’t get me wrong it’s still fun, but the seriousness is more involved and there’s more pressure when you’re running for a championship and stuff like that, the pressure is different. Your outlook on the racing is very serious no matter which way you do it.
“When you’re competing on a high level in the NASCAR deal running for a championship, there’s a lot of self-stress. You’ve still got stress from the company wanting you to win races and run good, that’s standard across the sport. But the pressure you put on yourself to perform for your sponsors and your team in a championship scenario is definitely way greater than doing the short track stuff.
“The short track stuff I did with the Outlaw Late Models was designing cars and trying to make them go fast and try to sell a better product to your customer. That was enjoyable for me to do that, there wasn’t a whole lot of stress there,” he added. “If you came across something, that great. If you didn’t find it, that’s fine because your stuff was still pretty good.”
Benson drove just about everything there is to drive in the short track ranks over the course of his career. When it comes to which one was his favorite, he could only boil it down to two.
“The Outlaw Late Model cars are just so much fun to drive. They’re fast, they’ve got a lot of grip, the competition’s still pretty tough in that. And the Supermodified is just an awesome machine, I’ve never raced anything that’s got the capability that those cars have, they’re just amazing.”
As he looked back on his time in NASCAR, he is proud of what he was able to accomplish at the age he was at the time. As the sport continues to get younger, winning the Xfinity title in his 30s and the Truck Series title 13 years later will always be special to him.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to win a championship in the Outlaw Late Models, and I’ve been fortunate enough to do it in ASA, the NASCAR Xfinity Series, and then the Truck Series. Those are equally compatible as far as doing it at different times in my life. I was 18, 19 years old when I started racing. I was always involved in racing with my dad but on the driving side of it I started pretty late. Even coming down south here, I was in my 30s when I came down here and was fortunate enough to win a Busch Series championship, so I was pretty old when that happened.”
“Although in the Truck Series the older guys do well, I was in my mid-40s when I won that. They’re just different times apart in your life and age that make them great in each scenario. Winning them later in the Truck Series when I was 45, 46, whatever it was, it was pretty cool to accomplish something like that at my age group, that’s pretty awesome in itself.”
With back surgery behind him, the 56-year-old has plans to get back behind the wheel once again for the 2020 season. He currently has two races on the schedule, with more possibly being added as the year goes along.
“This year I’m probably going to run a couple Supermodified races, but with everything going on now I’m not sure where everything stands as far as when these races are going to run,” he said. “I want to run Jukasa up in Canada and at Sandusky, Ohio for sure. There might be a couple other ones I may do or not, I’m not sure yet.”
-Story by: Koty Geyer, Speed51 National Correspondent – Twitter: @kgeyer3
-Photo Credit: Tom De Vette