Where Are They Now? Johnny Benson Jr. still driven to compete

Although his NASCAR days are behind him, at 58 years old Johnny Benson Jr. has no plans of slowing down. When asked how many more years he can still race, he answered with a huge laugh.

“About four years ago — but I still go 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 on the planet.’ A lot of things that I’m going and doing are for fun.

“Yes, I’m very competitive, but I still understand I’m getting at the age competing against these people that are very, very good at what they do. … I feel like I‘m the old guy out there, trying to do stuff. But at the same token, I’m still pretty good at what I do.”

RELATED: Career stats for Johnny Benson Jr.

Benson has at least eight Super Modified events scheduled in the 2022 season, mostly in his home state of Michigan, and in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

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Instead of racing, Benson has spent much more of his life actually building race cars for others, most notably over the last 15-plus 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 young age, including building his first race car at the age of 13.

But Johnny Jr. never had a desire to get behind the wheel and race. In fact, it wasn’t until his father decided to retire from his business that the younger Benson was kind of thrown behind the wheel out of necessity.

“I didn’t start running at 5 years old or 10 years old,” Benson told NASCAR.com. “I was 19. I was very old to start racing. My dad built racing components, and I built my first customer car at 13 years old. That was what I did; that‘s what I loved to do.

“I never even thought about racing until my dad decided to retire. At that point in time, I was 18 going on 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 was like, ‘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 go on to have a successful career in Late Models and Outlaws, primarily at the 7/16th mile long Berlin Raceway, his home track, in Marne, Michigan.

1995: Johnny Benson, Jr. celebrates his NASCAR Busch Grand National championship. Benson won two races on his way to the title, driving Chevrolets owned by Bill Baumgardner. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)
1995: Johnny Benson, Jr. celebrates his NASCAR Busch Grand National championship. Benson won two races on his way to the title, driving Chevrolets owned by Bill Baumgardner. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

Inspired by other Midwest drivers like the late Alan Kulwicki, Dick Trickle and others, Benson decided to pursue fortune and fame in NASCAR, starting with the Xfinity Series (then-Busch Series). It didn‘t take him long to find success, earning Rookie of the Year honors in 1994. He then won the championship in 1995 in just his second full-time season in the series, earning two wins, 12 top fives and 19 top-10 finishes in 26 starts.

RELATED: All-time Xfinity Series champions

“(Winning the Busch Series championship) surprised me,” Benson said. “The fact my first year I finished sixth and then go and win the championship the second year, it was just mind-boggling to me that this was so far out of my realm. I’m obviously very proud of it.”

After that title season in 1995, Benson moved to the NASCAR Cup ranks, where he competed full time for eight seasons. But success was not easy: he managed just one win (also took the checkered flag in the non-points Winston Open in 2001), 18 top fives and 58 top-10 finishes in 274 starts.

When asked who were the toughest drivers he ever traded paint with, Benson didn‘t hesitate in his reply.

“Dale Earnhardt, the best of the best with a great team and was just fierce on the track,” he said. “Then you also had Tony Stewart, Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon.

“Those are the guys I looked up to when I came down here. They were the fierce competitors that I saw on TV. They were very nice to talk to, but on the race track, oh, my God, it was business on.

“Those were the guys I looked at and told myself, ‘That’s my goal, to be them, to beat them.’ Yeah, I had my days where we were able to beat them, but not on a consistent basis. That’s what you look forward to. That’s what you do when you (move to the Cup series) and you‘ve got those guys that are at the top of the realm.

“That’s your goal. That‘s what my dad taught me, that there’s only one lap that pays money, there’s only one lap that that pays points. That’s your goal, it ain‘t to dominate, it‘s to try and win the race.”

Benson was lured to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series midway through the 2004 season and would find the type of success that he had long aspired for winning 14 races (all between 2006 and 2008), along with 58 top fives and 90 top-10 finishes all in just 138 starts. He was voted the series‘ Most Popular Driver for three straight seasons (2006-2008).

RELATED: All-time NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champions

HOLLYWOOD, FL - NOVEMBER 17: Driver Johnny Benson poses with the Champions trophy and ring at the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series Awards Banquet at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino on November 17, 2008 in Hollywood, Florida. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images for NASCAR) | Getty Images
HOLLYWOOD, FL - NOVEMBER 17: Driver Johnny Benson poses with the Champions trophy and ring at the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series Awards Banquet at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino on November 17, 2008 in Hollywood, Florida. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images for NASCAR) | Getty Images

The biggest part of his career in Trucks was earning the championship in 2008, making Benson only the second driver at that time to earn titles in both the Busch and Truck series (the other was 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 keen aspect of Benson‘s second championship was that it was 13 years between his two titles. By comparison, NASCAR Hall of Famer Terry Labonte won two Cup championships 12 years apart (1984 and 1996).

He‘s also one of just 36 drivers to win at least one race in each of NASCAR‘s top three series.

While Benson enjoyed his 18-season career in NASCAR, he admits to one regret: “That I wasn‘t able to achieve greater 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 right there. But things just didn’t work out for me in that category.”

RELATED: Drivers to win in all three NASCAR national series

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Since hanging up his NASCAR fire suit for the last time in 2010, Benson kept in the racing game, so to speak, by continuing to build primarily Late Model and Super Late Model race cars for customers in the United States and Canada.

But like many other business owners, Benson‘s pursuit suffered during 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, leading him to branch out into building and welding projects for non-racing customers.

“Building outlaw cars for asphalt, that’s what I love to do, that‘s my passion,” Benson said. “Now it’s just more odds and ends that people I know will bring some to me that say, ‘Hey, interested in doing this job?’ I look at 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 better?” Benson said. “I tell them, ‘Look, they‘re all great, but very different.

“I was all about I wanted to win races,” Benson said. “I won a couple championships and I enjoyed my time there, met a lot of great people, a lot of great racers.

“People don‘t realize that when I come down South to NASCAR and had an opportunity to race in the Busch Series, I was 30 years old. That does not happen today. People are getting booted out at 30.

“So to come here and have the opportunity and then turn around and win a championship at 32 years old was amazing. And to still run near the top 10 in the Cup Series in my upper 30s. Then, going into my 40s I win a Truck Series championship at 45, it‘s pretty satisfying.

“I shouldn’t have been there, I should have never been able to have that opportunity at the age I was, but to get in there and do that, it’s pretty cool. I’ve enjoyed my career but things of this nature, that is never going to happen.

ROCKINGHAM, NC - NOVEMBER 3: Johnny Benson, driver fo the #10 Valvoline PontiacGrand Prix, celebrates winning the NASCAR Winston Cup Pop Secret Microwave Popcorn 400 on November 3, 2002 at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, North Carolina. (Photo By Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images) | Getty Images
ROCKINGHAM, NC - NOVEMBER 3: Johnny Benson, driver fo the #10 Valvoline PontiacGrand Prix, celebrates winning the NASCAR Winston Cup Pop Secret Microwave Popcorn 400 on November 3, 2002 at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, North Carolina. (Photo By Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images) | Getty Images

“We’re one of the few racers that had poles and won races in every series and won two out of three championships in NASCAR‘s top tier series. That is very uncommon.”

Even to this day, when he‘s racing around in a Super Modified somewhere, Benson still approaches the sport the same way he did during his NASCAR career.

“I always looked at it as a job, always looked at it as a competition,” Benson said. “Your job is to go out and do your job. I went and did my job and I went home.”

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The Johnny Benson Jr. File:

* Age: 58

* Hometown: Grand Rapids, Michigan (now lives in Mooresville, North Carolina).

* Personal: Wife is Nicole. Johnny has two daughters and Nicole has a daughter and son.

Career highlights:

* 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 one 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 motorsports writer Jerry Bonkowski is writing a number of Where Are They Now? stories this year for NASCAR.com. Check out stories he‘s already done on 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 Biffle, Ricky Rudd, Darrell Waltrip, Mark Martin, Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya. Follow Jerry on Twitter @JerryBonkowski.